Last May, researchers at ICD Stuttgart revealed the Elytra Filament Pavilion—a vast, carbon fiber structure woven with the industrial arm of a modified Kuka robot. Now, in a thesis project led by Maria Yablonina, the same lab has managed to shrink the scale, from massive industrial-line robots, to a pair of drones that can crawl up your wall to weave smaller structures like tag-teaming spiders spinning silk.
Called the Mobile Robotic Fabrication System for Filament Structures, these robots use vacuum suction to crawl up walls, on roofs, and even upside-down across ceilings, to connect carbon fiber strings from integrated metal anchors (the anchors are pre-placed, but the robots will soon take that job, too). After loosely specifying the volume of structure you want built, algorithms coordinate two or more robots like a small swarm, and they will work together to cut and pass bits of string back and forth until they weave an almost unfathomably intricate web that could serve as furniture or just a unique element of architecture.
"One can imagine a fabrication process where an operator arrives to the scene with a suitcase housing all the necessary robots and materials to create a large structure," the project site explains. "These agile mobile robotic systems move robotic fabrication processes beyond the constraints of the [assembly line], exposing vast urban and interior environments as potential fabrication sites." Indeed, I imagine an Ikea of the future that consists of nothing more than a robot rental service and endless spools of carbon fiber, that will weave you a living room full of delectable diaeresis-punctuated home furnishings.
But is carbon fiber really the sort of material that you’d want in a domestic space? When I question if anyone would want to relax in a carbon fiber hammock built by robots, the researchers are quick to point out that, to some extent, we already are living that reality. "Composites such as carbon fiber-reinforced polymers are already being used for interiors and consumer products such as cars, airplanes, furniture," says advisor Marshall Prado, who believes new methods of production will stretch the potential of this material. "[They] are limited by the standard fabrication processes developed in the last century. Creating these novel adaptive processes allows us to overcome these limitations in order to create more performative architectural systems."
Carbon fiber implemented correctly is both incredibly light and strong (with composites that can give the tensile strength of steel a run for its money). So these woven sculptures could be more than just furniture or furnishings; they could be another way to build large-scale structures, much like we saw in the Elytra Filament Pavilion.
"We envision this system to be able to create structures not only at an interior scale, but also at an urban scale," says Yablonina. "One can imagine intricate structures being created by machines spanning filament between building facades, or working in places that are hard for a human to reach."
Whether or not those structures are created through this precise technique is almost beside the point. More and more, it seems feasible that highly coordinated drone hives will be piecing together the buildings and spaces of tomorrow, working faster, safer, and more precisely than we could ever manage with hands, hammers, and nails. Here’s hoping they never become intelligent enough to unionize.