Imagine you need to build moon houses. That’s no small task. You’ll need construction systems in place, and people to do the work, as well as preformed materials, and all of it has to travel 241,000 miles from earth on rockets. Sound difficult? It is. Traditional construction techniques have been quite limiting, even on earth. They are man-hour intensive, limited in form, and often quite expensive. Further, the materials management on a structure is very complex – prefabrication and transportation of structure-sized materials is costly and labor intensive.
Enter the automated fabrication industry. Companies are already using robotics for fabrication because they provide systems that minimize human error (think Eli Whitney’s interchangeable parts on crack) while at the same time reducing production costs. The automotive industry and the consumer electronics industry already employ these systems to great effect. However, though the construction industry is a massive ($8.5 trillion) business, automation has not caught on. Thomas Edison tried to build a ‘house mold’ which would allow an entire house structure to be built with a single concrete pour. It failed, however, and destroyed his concrete company.
But this is where robotics can do what Edison couldn’t. The newest attempt at automated fabrication comes in the form of the DCP (digital construction platform) designed and prototyped by a group of researchers funded by Google. They’ve constructed a two component robotic arm (comparable to the human shoulder and hand) that can spray structural foam within a 14.6m radius. The foam is a fast cure foam from Dow Chemical (Froth-Pak) that’s often used for insulation. It expands to nearly 80 times its initial volume, and cures in 30 seconds.
The DCP robotic arm system can be programmed to construct any sort of structure within its height and angular limitations. It will spray the foam in the correct pattern and angle in order to create a concrete pour form or other structural form for local permanent materials. What’s more, this handy little robot works based on the programming, and therefore does not require an operator. It’s also 100% self-sufficient, powered by solar cells that are used to charge batteries to run the robotic arm system. Finally, the robotic arm has been fitted with a real time laser sensor which is able to evaluate changes in ground height and the DCP is able to autonomously compensate for these variations. Hence, the DCP is fully autonomous – able to build without any human operation – ideal if you want to build moon houses.
The designers are working on systems that would allow the DCP to use surrounding materials (ice, sand, dirt) to build. With these systems in place, a DCP could conceivably be sent to the moon loaded with Froth-Pak, and complete a fully contained structure using only the materials found on the moon itself, and require no fuel source or hands-on human contact. In other words, you don’t need to build moon houses. Just have your DCP do it for you.
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