Mud-spraying drones take aim at low-cost housing
Further to opening our eyes to new perspectives on our environment, we are beginning to see how drones can also play very active roles in its construction. Walkable rope bridges and shapeshifting sun shelters are just a couple of manmade objects to lean on these flying robots recently, and now there's an enterprising team of researchers hoping to use them to craft low-cost housing made from natural materials.
The work is headed up by Stephanie Chaltiel, a researcher at Barcelona's Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia. Chaltiel has spent years researching how elements of certain building methods could be automated to open up new possibilities, in particular through the use of drones.
"We're trying to test how drones can be embedded in the construction chain to ease some of the most laborious tasks, to be able to introduce much more sustainable techniques for innovative housing," she says.
The idea is to fit drones with spraying hoses to apply layers of biomaterials onto light structures, such as geodesic dome frames or grid shells covered in tensile fabrics. These frames can be put up easily and quickly, with minimal tools and skills, and the use of drones negates the need for scaffolds and heavy machinery to finish the job, a real advantage in remote areas without road access.
The drones can be packed into luggage cases and the spraying pumps can transported on wheels, Chaltiel tells Italian design magazine Domus. When they arrive at the site they can be loaded up with cocktails of different natural ingredients, such as mud, clay, lime sands and oils to form "bioshotcrete." Different mixtures can be layered onto the structure in layers to offer different drying times and different textures, ultimately coming together to form stable exterior facades that hold everything together.
Chaltiel recently put these ideas to work at an annual summer workshop at Domaine de Boisbuchet, which looks to unearth new approaches to design problems. There, Chaltiel and her team built a geodesic skeleton in one hour and fitted it with 2,000 jute bags packed with hay. A professional pilot then took flight with the drone and wrapped it all together, forming a facade made from the so-called bioshotcrete.
Unfortunately, that particular dome collapsed a week later. Chaltiel tells Domus that it really needed a full week of drone-spraying to gain enough thickness to be permanently viable. But the lessons learned there helped the team make tweaks to their approach ahead of another workshop at London Design Festival, where it put together a shelter that endured.
With further work, Chaltiel hopes to work sensors into the drones so they can control thickness of the material on the fly. Eventually, she imagines developing the artificial intelligence onboard the drones so they can train themselves to identify cracks in structures as they emerge and patch them up in a timely manner.
The video below shows the team constructing their shelter at Domaine de Boisbuchet, while there are plenty of progress shots in the gallery that show how it all went down.