Housing ranks high among the numerous challenges that still need to be overcome before humans can colonize Mars. The brave pioneers that make the six-month voyage to the Red Planet will need a place to reside as soon as they land. While the optimal solution would be to have the structures ready before they get there, it has thus far been a challenge given that most automated construction robots have never made it out of the laboratory. Now, there may be a glimmer of hope thanks to Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) newly unveiled Digital Construction Platform (DCP).
The rover-like DCP that was featured in the journal Science Robotics on April 26, 2017, comprises a dual arm system that is fitted on a tracked vehicle. As the larger arm moves, the smaller, precision motor robotic arm builds the structure by spewing out the necessary construction material, ranging from insulation foam to concrete, from its nozzle. The team of researchers led by recent Ph.D. graduate Steven Keating say that unlike other 3-D printers that are limited to building objects that fit within their overall enclosure, DCP’s free moving system can be used to construct structures of any size.
The team recently demonstrated the DCP’s building prowess on an empty field in Mountain View, CA. The robot began by creating a mold with expanding foam that hardens when dry. It then constructed the building, layer by layer, using sensors to raise itself higher as it progressed. The final product was a sturdy “home” that boasted 50-foot diameter walls and a 12-foot high dome with room for essentials like electricity wires and water pipes to be inserted inside. Even more impressive? It took a mere 14 hours to “print!”
The researchers’ next plan is to make the DCP smart enough to analyze the environment where the structure is going to be built and determine the material densities best suited for the area. For example, unlike today’s uniform walls, future buildings would feature thicker walls on the side that gets impacted by the cold weather and thinner ones in areas that are shielded and do not require as much insulation. This would not only help create more energy-efficient and customized structures, but also significantly reduce the cost of materials . Neri Oxman, group director and an MIT associate professor of media arts and sciences, believes this [the DCP) will challenge ”traditional buildings typologies such as walls, floors, or windows.”
However, that’s not even the best part. Future DCP models are going to be solar powered, autonomous, and, most importantly, capable of sourcing construction components from its surroundings. This means the robot can be dispatched to remote, disaster-stricken areas, and perhaps even to Mars, to build shelters using whatever material is available. While that may sound like science fiction, Keating is confident the DCP will be ready for the real-world within five years. The scientist says, “You’ll start to see real structures made from these things. It’s going to be widespread, and [while] we won’t be able to make your house with this in the next five years, there will be structures being built.”
Resources: news.mit.edu, inhabitat.com