Because it’s the future now.
The robot, built by a crew of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is a bit like the Curiosity Mars rover crossed with the Canadarm. Their bot is solar powered, moves autonomously, and shoots building materials like foam and concrete from a printer head attached to a moveable arm. It’s also pretty fast—in about 13 hours, it printed a nearly 15-metre-wide open dome.
Although this isn’t the largest structure ever printed by a robot, it’s still pretty impressive, and is bound to improve. The project has been in the works since 2011. Thanks to its use of renewable energy, its autonomy, and an on-board bucket for picking up environmental materials like dirt and ice, the hope is that one day the bot could be sent to far-flung locations—like outer space—where it will build structures out of available materials and without human intervention.
Read More: 3D Printing in Space Is Really Hard
“If we’re going to places like Mars, it’d be very difficult to accommodate the amount of construction material you’d need to ship out on a rocket,” said Steven Keating, first author of a paper describing the robot, published on Wednesday in Science Robotics. “We definitely need to use local resources on the Moon and Mars to fabricate things like landing pads.”
There’s a lot of work still to be done before we get there, however. For example, Keating said, the solar panels take a long time to charge the batteries, which only last for about eight hours right now. The robot also needs to get better at printing with materials like ice and dirt. And, although it can estimate ground height and work around it while printing out a structure, there’s a long way to go before it’ll be able to scope out a location and decide what the best place for a column is, for example. The MIT team has made experimental progress on all these fronts, Keating said.
“Our whole concept is around a mobile-system that’s self-sufficient, which means it can get its own energy, its own materials, and can be autonomously controlled using environmental data,” he explained.
In the meantime, the printer robot is designed to fit into current construction processes, which means it can be implemented immediately here on Earth, Keating said. While other 3D printing robots aim to print entire buildings in one go, or close to it, that’s not such a stellar sell for most construction companies right now. Instead, Keating and his colleagues designed the robot to take over a stage of the construction process called concrete formwork, which fills a fabricated foam structure in with concrete.
“We have a system using construction materials that are already widely trusted, and a technique that integrates into existing construction workloads,” Keating said.
First, we take the construction site, and then we take the Moon.