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September 28, 2018

These crazy alien-like structures were built by MIT’s silkworm-inspired robots

by John_A

When it comes to futuristic construction technologies, few things can make 3D printing or bricklaying robots look like old news. A new swarm of silkworm-inspired robots built by Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers certainly fits the bill, however. Called Fiberbots, these diminutive cylindrical robots are capable of spinning giant cocoons made of fiberglass, which spring up like otherworldly plants from a sci-fi movie.

The Fiberbots use a tiny arm to wind fiberglass thread around their bodies, pulling it up from a tank on the ground. The materials are then mixed in a nozzle and heated using ultraviolet light to form a hard tube. The robots spin 3-inch segments of tubing, before deflating themselves, and using a tiny onboard motor and wheels to crawl to the end of that segment, ready to begin the process again. The Fiberbots are even able to communicate with one another so as to avoid colliding with one another, and to coordinate the most efficient means of building. Over a 12-hour period, a swarm of 22 of these robots can weave multiple treelike structures stretching almost 15 feet in the air.

While it sounds like (and is) an impressive tech demo, the Fiberbots could have promising real-world applicability. Fiberglass might be a lightweight material, but it’s surprisingly strong and resilient against the elements. For example, the treelike structures built by the Fiberbot robots can survive weather conditions including extreme winds, rain, and snow for months at a time.

Due to the challenge of transporting large structures long distances, the hope is that tools like the Fiberbots could one day be used to build structures in inhospitable environments, such as on Mars. In that scenario, human builders wouldn’t be required and instructions would simply be transmitted to the robots for them to follow.

Is this the future of construction as we know it? The Fiberbot project seemingly isn’t yet ready to graduate on to more advanced structures such as houses or bridges just yet, but all the signs are there that this could be a significant development.

A paper describing the work, “Design of a multi-agent, fiber composite digital fabrication system,” was recently published in the journal Science Robotics.

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