Researchers at Cornell University have built a robot prototype capable of navigating a three dimensional truss structure, disassembling and reassembling the structure into new forms as it goes. The project hints at a possible future when buildings and robots may be designed in close harmony for autonomous buildings maintenance.

The robots are fitted with specialized 3D-printed bi-directional gears and joints tailored specifically to the structural components. They are hinged at the middle allowing them to flex through ninety degrees in order to navigate from vertical to horizontal rods and vice versa. They are also equipped with a rotational mechanism allowing them to twist around the pole as well as to unscrew rods from the structure itself.

Most impressive is that the robot can do all this under its own steam thanks to an onboard power supply, and reflectivity sensors to detect reflective strips spaced strategically on each of the structures component rods, helping the robot to track its location.

The rods of the structure are rather complex too, coming equipped with "robot lockable connectors" - a mechanism designed to with the robot's tools in mind. Carbon fiber rods run through the connections for reinforcement.

Research team member Jeremy Blum refers to this deconstruction and reconstruction as "machine metabolism" - a mechanized analogy to the way biological organisms metabolize nutrients and rebuild them for their own ends.

Though impressive, there is clearly much work to be done. A demo video (which you can watch below) seems to indicate that the machines, though adept at disassembly, can only replace rods under certain circumstances. Indeed the design team states that its current prototypes have a 100 percent success rate in disassembling structural components, but only 70 percent for assembly.

In the future, though, such robots could be used to disassemble redudant structures and rework them into entirely new forms. That may one day spell entirely recyclable buildings, though the research team hopes that robots may one day assist in space missions, sparing humans the burden of undertaking risky spacewalks to carry out repairs.

"Right now, we are very bad at recycling construction materials," said Hod Lipson of Cornell's Creative Machines Lab. "We are exploring a smarter way to allow the assembly, disassembly and reconfiguration of structures."

A paper on the team's research is soon to appear in IEEE Robotics and Automation.

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