PhD candidate Federico Augugliaro and his advisor Raffaello D'Andrea at ETH Zurich 's Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control (IDSC) made headlines in 2011 with their Flight-Assembled Architecture Project, in which flying robots constructed an 18-foot tall indoor tower out of lightweight foam blocks. At the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems held this month in Tokyo, Augugliaro and his team discussed the next phase of their flying robotics research, which involves the creation of suspended tensile cable structures.

In the current experiment, individual quadrocopter drones (unmanned flying robots with four sets of helicopter blades) carry spools of plastic cable. Based on pre-programmed operations communicated by a central computer, the drones perform a number of construction applications with the cable—such as connecting two structures by weaving them together, or tying complicated knots. The ETH researchers point out that the flying robots are able to perform actions that humans could not, given the fact that they require no physical contact with a floor surface or scaffolding.

Augugliaro and his colleagues aim to realize autonomous aerial construction methods for buildings and infrastructure, with applications ranging from suspension bridges to aerial connections between existing skyscrapers. Although the ETH quadrocopters demonstrate remarkable functionality in a controlled setting, the liability-conscious construction industry is not likely to embrace autonomous aerial construction in real settings without much more development and testing.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.