Architecture will lose its formal rigidity, softening and flexing and getting closer to the life we see in plants.
As scientists make huge strides in robotics, natural building materials, and new construction methods, our urban architecture could take on a much different form than the rigid construction we’re used to.
As complex ecosystems, cities are confronting tremendous pressures to seek optimum efficiency with minimal impact in a resource-constrained world. While architecture, urban planning, and sustainability attempt to address the massive resource requirements and outflow of cities, there are signs that a deeper current of biology is working its way into the urban framework.
Innovations emerging across the disciplines of additive manufacturing, synthetic biology, swarm robotics, and architecture suggest a future scenario when buildings may be designed using libraries of biological templates and constructed with biosynthetic materials able to sense and adapt to their conditions. Construction itself may be handled by bacterial printers and swarms of mechanical assemblers.
Much of the modern built environment we experience began its life in CAD software. In the Bio/Nano/Programmable Matter lab at Autodesk Research, engineers are developing tools to model the microscopic world. Project Cyborg helps researchers simulate atomic and molecular interactions, providing a platform to programmatically design matter. Autodesk recently partnered with Organovo, a firm developing functional bioprinters that can print living tissues. This pairing extends the possibilities from molecular design to biofabrication, enabling rapid prototyping of everything from pharmaceuticals to nanomachines.
Tools like Project Cyborg make possible a deeper exploration of biomimicry through the precise manipulation of matter. David Benjamin and his Columbia Living Architecture Lab explore ways to integrate biology into architecture. Their recent work investigates bacterial manufacturing–the genetic modification of bacteria to create durable materials. Envisioning a future where bacterial colonies are designed to print novel materials at scale, they see buildings wrapped in seamless, responsive, bio-electronic envelopes.
From molecular printing to volume manufacturing, roboticist Enrico Dini has fabricated a 3D printer large enough to print houses from sand. He’s now teamed up with the European Space Agency to investigate deploying his D-Shape printer to the moon in hopes of churning lunar soil into a habitable base. Though realization of this effort remains distant, it’s notable to show how the thinking–and money–is moving to scale 3-D printing well beyond the desktop.
While printers integrate new materials and scale up to make bigger things, another approach to construction focuses on programming group dynamics. Like corals, beehives, and termite colonies, there’s a scalar effect gained from coordinating large numbers of simple agents towards complex goals.
The Robobees project at Harvard is exploring micro-scale robotics, wireless sensor arrays, and multi-agent systems to build robotic insects that exhibit the swarming behaviors of bees. They see a future where “coordinated agile robotic insects” are used for agriculture, search and rescue, and (of course) military surveillance. Taking a cue from mound-building termites, the TERMES project is developing a robotic swarm construction system. The team is working to get cooperative robots building things bigger than themselves by mapping the rules underlying emergence in autonomous distributed populations. Mike Rubenstein leads another Harvard lab, Kilobot, creating a “low cost scalable robot system for demonstrating collective behaviors”. His lab, along with the work of researcher’s like Nancy Lynch at MIT, are laying the frameworks for asynchronous distributed networks and multi-agent coordination, aka swarm robotics.
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Robotic swarm construction
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