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In the latest advance in the nascent robotics revolution in architecture, a Boston-based researcher has transformed a Universal Robot into an android-like apprentice, able to rapidly convert computational designs into sophisticated 3D models.
Hakim Hasan, a robotics specialist at the US studio Perkins and Will, says he has reengineered the Danish-produced UR5 bot to give it many of the abilities of a human architect. Enhanced with a 3D scanner and video camera, this “collaborative robot,” or human-friendly “cobot,” has gained amazing vision, along with the ability to clone objects within its field of sight.
After scanning and filming an original work of art or architecture, he says, his Mobile Robotic Assistant for Architectural Design could deploy its laser cutter to carve a near-perfect replica, whether of Nefertiti’s 3000-year-old portrait in limestone or an iron icon like the Eiffel Tower.
Hasan says he perfected the software that controls MRAAD, and the holster that holds its arsenal of tools, during his residency at Autodesk’s fantastical Technology Center in Boston.
Autodesk, in turn, hailed his melding of robotics and design technologies as holding the potential to change the future of building.
The number of robots sold in 2018 rocketed to 422,000 units worldwide, with installations rising by double digits in Europe and the US, according to the International Federation of Robotics. Yet most of these increasingly intelligent, computer-controlled workers were conscripted into the auto and electronics sectors.
Robots have been only lightly sprinkled across the sphere of architecture, with vanguard university outposts and design studios leading their deployment.
Experiments with adapting robots to bring complex geometries – born of the explosion in 3D modeling software – to life were launched at the leading-edge Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, or ETH) Zurich after the opening of the new millennium.
Fabio Gramazio and Matthias Kohler, who head the first robotics lab aimed at pushing forward new forms of hyper-tech architecture at ETH, began exhibiting futuristic designs they explained could only be fabricated via the extreme precision of robot-builders, including undulating brick walls whose curvature calls to mind Einstein’s maps of space-time warped by the force of gravity.
When their mobile R-O-B unit built “Structural Oscillations” onsite at the Venice Biennale, the installation was hailed as an oracle of architecture’s next wave of metamorphosis.
Hasan, who entered ETH’s digital fabrication lab as a graduate student three years ago, co-created the “Brick Labyrinth,” a surreal maze of fantastically curved passageways. Assembled by four inter-linked robots, the circular labyrinth was recognized as another breakthrough in robotics-enhanced design and construction.
The Swiss campus, where Einstein once explored the physics of the cosmos, “was absolutely amazing – outfitted with state-of-the-art robotic and 3D printing technology,” Hasan says.
After leaving Zurich, Hasan launched his residency at the Autodesk outpost in Boston by co-designing a parametric pavilion that was mostly constructed by a Swiss ABB robot.
The robot simulations and construction sequences he helped develop to assemble that pavilion with cross-laminated timber could likewise be deployed to build a mass timber structure of up to 18 stories – the new limit set out by the International Code Council.
Andrew TsayJacobs, co-designer of the pavilion, says Perkins and Will aims to move ahead with robotics to step up the speed and precision of constructing its designs, and with sustainable building materials like mass timber in order to reduce the outfit’s carbon footprint.
Robotics is also playing a widening role in the studio’s design process. “We robotically fabricate prototypes to help work through design ideas and illustrate the feasibility of various assemblies and geometries, says TsayJacobs, who heads the atelier’s Building Technology Lab.
“We believe that in the future, machines and robots will be executing our designs," says Nick Cameron, director of digital practice at Perkins and Will, part of the coalition of architects that designed and built the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture on the prestigious National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Another Perkins and Will architect predicts that by the end of the 2020s, “We will start to provide construction instructions for robots as often as we do for humans.”
Hakim Hasan says a new generation of MRAAD robo-architects, featuring a streamlined user interface and ramped-up bevy of tools, could be deployed across the studio’s outposts around the world as the new decade unfolds.