Flying robots could build these prefab towers

The concept of the flying robot has rarely had positive connotations. Usually the very mention of the words “flying robot” or “drone” leads to talk about government intrusion or terrifying, secret high-tech warfare. Rarely does it conjure images of benign uses (or even mechanical best friends).

An architecture firm, based appropriately enough in Zurich, Switzerland, wants to change the negative stereotypes of unmanned drones into something beneficial for urban planners and the corporate bottom line, as well as for the environment. For the last few years, Gramazio & Kohler has been working with robotics firm Raffaello D’Andrea on a system that could one day use “quadcopter” drones to lift prefab modules into a new skyscrapers, saving on money, labor, materials and time.

A quadcopter drone positions a foam brick over a prefab model tower in a 2012 demonstration. Image by François Lauginie via Gramazio & Kohler Architekten.

In a 2012 proof-of-concept demonstration called Flight Assembled Architecture, Gramazio & Kohler built a 1:1,100-scale model of a proposed residential tower using four Raffaello D’Andrea quadcopters and more than 1,500 foam bricks, representing modular residential units. The project team recently published a book called “Flight Assembled Architecture” with Editions HYX, and posted severalintriguing videos of the brick-by-brick construction.

Charging stations used by the four quadcopters during demonstration. Image by François Lauginie via Gramazio & Kohler Architekten.

Working entirely through pre-programmed algorithms, the flying drones moved in a coordinated ballet from their charging stations to the brick supply and to the tower itself, gently placing each brick on the precise spot determined by the data in their digital brains. The project team called the Flight Assembled Architecture demonstration the first installation to be built entirely by robots, without any human intervention.

Artist’s concept of a circular “vertical village” that could be created with robot-lifted prefab modules. Image via Gramazio & Kohler Architekten.

The mock-up is part of a planned project to build a residential “vertical village” tower nearly 2,000 feet high in Meuse, France, that would hold up to 30,000 residents in prefab units. Much like the demonstration, each self-contained unit would be raised by flying vehicles and locked into place in a circular grid pattern that would leave open spaces for terraces beside each module. The finished tower would consist of an undulating cylinder of interlocked units that would surround a large central courtyard.

A vision of the completed tower as it would look in Meuse, France. Image via Gramazio & Kohler Architekten.

It remains to be seen whether this idea becomes a breakthrough for modern skyscraper construction or turns into just another unrealized cool spin in the long-promised “flying car” fantasy of utopian dreamers. But with the unprecedented dexterity of today’s unmanned drones and the recent boom in interest regarding prefab, 3-D printed materials, it appears that the flying robot concept has enough merit to become a cost-saving, sustainable reality in the not-too-distant future.

* Randy Woods, EarthTechling