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Need a bridge on Mars? Send a bunch of robots

Stephen Lawson | June 26, 2015
A Harvard scientist wants to make swarms of robots build structures anywhere without blueprints.

The latest project Werfel's involved in asks whether robots could build something without blueprints. He described the early-stage research at the O'Reilly Solid conference in San Francisco on Wednesday.

The robots here would essentially make up the design as they built it, responding to conditions right around them. For example, they could build a tower in an unexplored environment just by continually trying to make it taller.

"As they go, they determine, by measuring local forces, is it safe to keep building higher or do I need to go back lower and reinforce what's already been built?" Werfel said.

Instead of bricks, this project would use standard scaffolding tubes with specialized clamps to hold them together. The clamps would have built-in sensors to measure the forces on the structure and would share that data with the robots. Those parts could later be disassembled and reused.

Rather than an orderly structure of right angles, the robots would place the tubes in any order that would give the structure strength, creating a mesh-like structure that might be wide in some sections and narrow in others.

The work is still at the simulation stage, so there aren't any towers or bridges Werfel and his team can show off. But they see the technique being used to build temporary structures in harsh, unknown environments. So if astronauts ever need radio towers or a way to get across a crater on Mars, they may be able to get someone else -- or something else -- to do the work for them.

 

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