Every time we catch up with developments in quadrocopter technology they seem to be getting even more astonishing. This time we're seeing a distant future where our robot drones actually construct buildings for us.
Yes, this may be the most impressive, or at least the most promising, activity we've seen the tiny aircraft do (for civilian, non-warfighting purposes, that is). The University of Pennsylvania's GRASP lab has been experimenting with teaching quadrocopters to collaborate together, but now they've worked out how to get the air vehicles to work in teams to construct the frame of a building.
Quadrocopters represent something of an ideal for research and development into autonomous flying drones: They're aerodynamically stable (more than helicopters,) can lift heavy payloads, and their mode of flight and hover is pretty straightforward in terms of control. This is why we've seen them learn to do improbable tricks like dance, dive through tiny slots and even juggle balls in real time.
UPenn's team used a weak form of self-assembly tech to aid the process, with the joints of the building held together with magnets—obviating the need for fiddly bolts or braces-style fixings. We can forgive this trick though, as the project is evidently an experimental first stage, and future tool-wielding quadrocopters could potentially manage to bolt or rivet panels together, and the little aircraft are already capable of the technically delicate task of verifying they've put things together properly by gently bashing into the frame they've built.
Why is this technology important? For a number of reasons, robot swarms may be a more efficient tool for many tasks—starting with the fact that a big enough swarm can lift very heavy objects, using their combined lifting power, and even if individual 'bots in the swarm break down or make an error they can be quickly substituted for. Plus if we ever try to build structures on other planets with atmospheres, shipping a troupe of flying bots allows for more flexibility than purpose-built heavy lift robots—and the research could easily be adapted to rocket-powered flying drones for construction on the airless moon.
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