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When Xavier De Kestelier unveiled his studio’s leading-edge Mars habitat at London’s Design Museum, he suggested its breakthrough technologies could transform the entire sphere of architecture.
The life-size module highlights how robots could join forces with human designers to begin recreating Mars in the Earth’s image. De Kestelier, head of design technology at the architecture atelier Hassell, says he hopes it will help spark a worldwide robotics revolution in construction.
Zooming across a digital screen, an army of bots that can shape-shift - like Transformers – carves a dome out of the planet’s orange-red dunes – a curved shield that will protect the astronauts inside. These swarms of intelligent, interlinked robots will begin assembling the Mars base years before the first human colonists touch down, he explains.
His team of specialists in extraterrestrial architecture, robotics and artificial intelligence was named one of the top finalists in NASA’s 3D Printed Habitat Challenge.
While the rise of robotics is already “revolutionizing” manufacturing, he says, the transformation of architecture has only played out along the sector’s experimental frontiers. If these breakthroughs coalesce into a full-blown robotics revolution, he predicts, they could remake the realm of architecture and construction, now valued at $10 trillion globally.
Justin McGuirk, curator of “Moving to Mars,” says the exhibition was partly inspired by SpaceX’s super-speed technological leaps.
With blueprints to create a Martian cosmopolis, retro-futuristic Starship spacecraft and 3D-printed rocket engines, McGuirk says, “SpaceX has helped bring Mars back to the forefront of our imaginations. There’s no doubt that some of the work going into robotic construction – both for Mars and on Earth – will eventually filter into the mainstream.”
Avant-garde studios use competitions like NASA’s to test new robotic technologies, De Kestelier says, while cutting-edge university labs at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich are developing sophisticated computational designs brought to life through robot-powered building systems.
ETH professors teamed up with a contingent of robots to assemble the curved concrete walls and timber framework of the futuristic DFAB House, which recently opened to host visiting scholars.
Jeffrey Montes, who heads research at the New York studio AI SpaceFactory, predicts advances made in experimental Martian architecture could trigger a new wave of environmentally friendly building across the home planet.
Montes led the design of a robotically sculpted Mars outpost that seized the $500,000 first-place prize in NASA’s competition, and is now on exhibit at the Design Museum. The NASA contest, he says, was designed “to advance the state of the art” in 3D printing, and promote the spread of this technology across the globe.
New technologies and materials that SpaceFactory developed could engender a green era in construction. To print its Mars base, the studio created a composite material that combines volcanic basalt fiber with the bioplastic PLA. This composite outperformed concrete in tensile and comprehensive strength, Montes says.
Unlike concrete, the new material is completely recyclable, and if widely adopted, could drastically shrink the current carbon footprint of the worldwide construction sector.
To underscore that point, SpaceFactory is recycling the material from its first Mars prototype to 3D-print a new version of the structure inside a forest in upstate New York, he says.
The studio ultimately aims to robotically build a constellation of increasingly sophisticated habitats here on Earth to give visitors around the world a glimpse of what it might be like to live on the terraformed surface of Mars.