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FIBERBOTS: insect-inspired swarm robots build amazing tubular structures

MIT's FIBERBOTS showcase a unique way of additively constructing large-scale structures

Always at the cutting edge, MIT’s Mediated Matter lab has developed a new, experimental additive manufacturing technique that uses a swarm of small robots to build up tubular structures. The process, called FIBERBOTS, can enable the digital fabrication of large-scale architectures with high spatial resolution.

A video of the FIBERBOTS at work almost seems like something otherworldly. Or, rather, something of this world but something inspired by some of nature’s smallest creatures: bugs. In fact, it was insects that inspired the Mediated Matter Lab researchers, specifically cooperative insects such as bees, ants and termites which work together rapidly and efficiently to create complex living structures. Interestingly, the researchers were also partly inspired by spiders and their ability to spin protein fibers to create silk webs with tunable properties that are at once flexible and strong.

The process itself consists of a swarm of mobile fabrication nodes (or robotic agents, as MIT refers to them), which wind fiberglass filament around an inflated portion of themselves to create strong, standing tubular structures. When the winding for one section is complete, the robot deflates and moves up to begin a new segment.

Because the robots work in a swarm, they are capable of creating interwoven or parallel tubes which can be designed to create larger architectural forms. The robots move and coordinate with each other thanks to sensor feedback. These sensors also enable the bots to control the length and curvature of the tubes to ensure they correspond to a design path set out by a “custom, environmentally informed, flocking-based design protocol.”

“This,” writes the MIT lab on its website, “provides designers the ability to control high-level design parameters that govern the shape of the resulting structure without needing to tediously provide commands for each robot by hand.”

In testing the FIBERBOTS method, the Mediated Matter researchers used a 16-robot array (developed in-house) to build a 4.5 meter-tall structure. The structure in question stood outside for months—even through a Massachusetts winter—showcasing its strength and resilience. The process, says the research team, has the potential to enhance collaborative robotic systems to build new and innovative environments and structures.

Perhaps most interesting about the project is that it presents a totally new approach to robotic building, which has mostly been based on deposition or component placement (like brick laying, for instance).

“A swarm approach to manufacturing can radically transform digital construction by digitally fabricating structural materials; generating products and objects larger than their gantry size; and supporting non-layered construction by offering novel fabrication processes such as robotic weaving and free-form printing,” the research team writes.

“These methods are conducive to function generation, however cannot be easily scaled to large systems. With swarm sensing and actuation, systems can become more responsive and adaptive to environmental conditions. Following Nature’s example, a swarm offers reliability and efficiency through distributed tasks, parallel actuation, and redundancy.”

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Tess Boissonneault

Tess Boissonneault moved from her home of Montreal, Canada to the Netherlands in 2014 to pursue a master’s degree in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam. It was during her time in Amsterdam that she became acquainted with 3D printing technology and began writing for a local additive manufacturing news platform. Now based in France, Tess has over two and a half years experience writing, editing and publishing additive manufacturing content with a particular interest in women working within the industry. She is an avid follower of the ever-evolving AM industry.

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