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A building that moves by itself

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Words:
Stephen Cousins

Drones work as ‘muscles’ to reconfigure architecture autonomously

A smart canopy that uses drones to reconfigure its shape could be the precursor to a new form of autonomous adaptable architecture, its inventors claim.

Three masters students at the Institute for Computational Design and Construction (ICD) in Stuttgart built a prototype of the system, which comprises a series of lightweight modular tiles able to respond in real-time to environmental stimuli, such as the movement of the sun or other climatic conditions.

The hexagonal-shaped tiles have built-in sensors and are able to communicate with drones that grab them and move them into new positions. Magnets on the edges of tiles enable them to clip into position to form a hexagonal pattern at the top of streetlamp-style poles.

The automated and autonomous approach hints at a future where architecture is no longer static but able to reconfigure itself at will without human intervention.

Credit: ICD/ITKE University of Stuttgart, M. Aflalo, J. Chen, B. Tahanzadeh

Dylan Wood, research associate at ICD, told RIBA Journal: ‘At the heart of the project is the idea for a new type of building component that is able to communicate with other components; collect data about its surroundings, such as the weather, its location in relation to neighbouring components or the people underneath; and then be reconfigured.’

He added: ‘The drones are the external ‘muscles’ that rearrange the components. This is very different from a traditional construction process, where the material, like a brick, does not know where it is.

‘In future, the muscle could be replaced by other mechanisms, such as hot air balloons, inflatable structures or small vehicles.’

The 1:1 scale prototype was erected in a forest on the outskirts of Stuttgart. It comprised a 2.5m-high canopy, 20 fully functional tiles made from a lightweight carbon fibre filament and two UAVs working autonomously. One student monitored communication between the tiles and their location in relation to one another, while another monitored the drones and had access to a master ‘kill switch’ it anything went wrong.

The system was designed to be cheap to deploy, using open source software and hardware available on the internet. According to Wood, if a future system is programmed to be smart enough and has the right structural logic, costs associated with design and construction would be slashed by entirely removing the need to hire an architect or a contractor.

  • Credit: ICD/ITKE University of Stuttgart, M. Aflalo, J. Chen, B. Tahanzadeh
  • Credit: ICD/ITKE University of Stuttgart, M. Aflalo, J. Chen, B. Tahanzadeh
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‘We want to get to a point where we can release a building into a public space and let it reconfigure itself,’ he said. ‘In the beginning, it might have a preprogrammed path, but using sensors and machine learning it could collect data for hour or a month, then slowly figure out the optimal configurations to adopt at specific times. It’s a structure that can adapt itself on the fly,’ he concludes. ‘It would abolish the traditional principles of plan, design, construct, and then demolish.

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