Stefana Parascho, an architect, and Sigrid Adriaenssens, an engineer, were two Princeton academics who fantasised about automating construction, even as they created intricate designs.
For the SOM ‘Anatomy of Structure’ exhibition in London, the professors collaborated with the architecture and engineering firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) to produce a remarkable and distinctive installation. They created an impressive vault with 338 translucent glass bricks from Poesia Glass Studio using two industrial robots. The vault is 7 feet high, 12 feet wide and 21 feet long.
Crucially, LightVault reduced resource use in two ways: by eliminating the need for formwork or scaffolding during construction and by increasing the structural efficiency of the vault by making it twice curved, which required less material. These could only be achieved through the power and precision of robots.
The idea for the robotic assembly of the vault was created by Princeton assistant professor of architecture Parascho. He added: “I’m trying to figure out what robots can do that people can’t do well.” The CREATE lab at Princeton, whose name stands for architectural technologies that enable robotics and computation, is led by Parascho.
Alessandro Beghini, associate director and senior structural engineer at SOM who worked on LightVault, commented that robotic construction “opens up a multitude of architectural and design alternatives where robots complement human effort”. Robots could be used in places where it would be unsafe for people to work or where reaching people would be a challenge.
Unlike humans, who require guides or support structures to create complex geometries, robots are adept at making precise movements in space on their own. The possibility of surprising and unusual shapes was motivated by this, which is what the researchers explored. The developer of the idea was Edvard Bruun, a PhD candidate in civil and environmental engineering.
He noted that the inherent accuracy of robots in navigating 3D space would allow us to focus more on making the design as efficient as possible, rather than getting bogged down in the physical construction challenges typically associated with such a structure. Human builders would still need to double- and triple-check block locations, he added.
Without using scaffolding or other supports, the team devised a method for the two robots to cooperate to build the central arch of the vault. Each robot would place a brick and then maintain the building while the other robot added the next brick.
According to Bruun, beauty and structural or material efficiency are not incompatible. As we find better ways to use robots in construction tasks, he argues, they could help us achieve this. Construction requires a lot of resources and energy.
The robotic manufacturing method was created by Ph.D. student Isla Xi Han in Parascho’s lab.
The robots began operating independently after completing the central arch, creating each side of the vault one at a time. The bricks were placed in such a way that each newly added brick supported the one behind it, ensuring the stability of the unfinished building.
A total of eight structures were built, some at the Embodied Computation Lab in Princeton.
The team did a lot of testing and tried to anticipate every potential problem, but still found surprises. Samantha Walker, senior structural engineer at SOM, said the air compressor that was purchased for the London installation was not robust enough.
The design and construction of an arch for the European Space Agency (ESA) had to be completed, accelerated and finished in half the time originally planned. This challenged the team with their biggest task during COVID-19. The relief that everyone made it home safe and sound, according to Parascho, was perhaps the greatest success of completing the vault.
Another challenge has been how to work safely in a robotics lab and how to conduct research remotely. “The current state has shifted our focus online, which allows and encourages researchers around the world to connect more quickly and easily,” said Parascho.
Bruun said there was a bright spot. We demonstrated the viability of robots as working tools in a scenario where social distance is a key factor. CREATE Lab is currently developing a remote setup to allow students and researchers to operate the robots from home and continue their studies despite the epidemic.
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