Inside a Termes robot from Harvard University's Self-Organizing Systems Research Group.
Ian Allen Inside a Termes robot from Harvard University's Self-Organizing Systems Research Group.

The machines are coming—and you can expect they’ll be vying for a spot on your project team. But rather than the utilitarian, single-task robotic arms and cranes of decades past, today’s mechanical builders are smaller, lither, and can tackle a range of construction duties from surveying rugged terrain to building a foundation. For a point of comparison, consider that one of the first construction robots, which was developed by Japanese construction firm Shimizu in the early 1980s, consisted of an arm that sprayed fireproofing material on steel frames

The change is driven by an interest in design, says Martin Bechthold, who heads the Design Robotics Group at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. “We’re not asking, ‘How can we do what we do, and do it more efficiently?’ ” he says. “We’re asking, ‘How can we do new and exciting things?’ ”

Though the latest construction robots are limited to working in controlled environments, developers of the following five machines are prepping for a future in which automation rules on even the most unwieldy jobsites.

Ian Allen

Developer: Self-Organizing Systems Research Group at Harvard University
Year created: 2011
How it works: Named for the mound-building termite genus Macrotermes, the Termes prototype works independently among a swarm of its peers to build complex structures. The 6-inch-long, 4-inch-wide robots are programmed with an algorithm that issues traffic rules specific to assembling a given structure, while integrated sensors help each detect when and where to place the next foam block. In action, they click around on spiky, climb-ready wheels and transport the blocks on their backs. The concept is suited for hazardous jobsites because even if a handful of the ’bots break, the rest can continue on without missing a beat. Its developers hope that one day, a project team could program in drawings, supply materials, and watch the robo-colony go to work. Video

Ian Allen

Developer: Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT
Year created: 2013
How it works: MIT researchers are building an army of modular, robotic cubes that can self-assemble into almost any rectilinear shape to form load-bearing objects such as a chair or even scaffolding. Controlled by radio signals, M-Blocks hop around in gravity-defying jerks sans any external moving parts. Rather, each cube is propelled by the momentum of an internal spinning flywheel. When the wheel brakes, its conserved momentum catapults the robot into the air, allowing M-Blocks to jump, roll, and climb over each other, assembling into new configurations. Magnets on the cubes’ faces and corners allow them to snap together and to scale metal surfaces, such as a network of pipes or a tall building. And because each block works independently, if one falls or is lost, the rest can soldier on. Video

Ian Allen

Developer: California College of the Arts, Future Cities Lab
Year created: 2013
How it works: The Geoweaver’s glue gun–like 3D printer extrudes fiber-reinforced concrete as it navigates terrain on six legs. A building plan transmitted through radio signals guides the machine’s activity via open-source software, cross-weaving lines of concrete to knit the fibers together. Its developers see the ’bot as a foreman of the future, with integrated sensors and GPS to perform site analysis and record soil data and topography. Geoweaver's developers are still working on the 'bot's capacity for larger-scale building, but an upcoming version of the printer will fabricate 8-foot-tall tilt-up panels. Future printing materials include algae, clay, and recycled plastic. Video

Ian Allen

Developer: Trimble
Year created: 2013
How it works: Designed to cover the same ground in one flight that a human in an all-terrain vehicle might in four or five days, the Trimble UX5 can fly up to 2,460 feet above the ground and stay airborne for up to 50 minutes. That makes it a fit for charting hard-to-reach or rugged terrain. A hawk-eyed camera scans the ground at a 2.4-centimeter resolution—a much denser level of detail than can be ascertained from surveying on foot. Released to the market last summer, the battery-powered unmanned aerial vehicle follows a pre-programmed flight plan uploaded through Trimble software. Once it lands at a preset location, users can upload the flight data and get a 3D model of the surveyed area before construction, to map out the land, and during, to survey the progress of a job. Video

Joris Laarman Lab

Developer: Joris Laarman Lab
Year Created: 2014
How it works: The MX3D-Metal uses anti-gravity object printing to make steel, aluminum, bronze, or copper objects of almost any size and shape. Created by Dutch designer Joris Laarman's experimental and eponymous studio, its robotic welder’s arm works directly from CAD files to print lines of molten material in midair that extend horizontally from any metal surface or in curves and spirals. Due to the strength and fast set-time of the metal print media, MX3D-Metal doesn’t require the additional support structures of previous incarnations, and it can be affixed to a rail or a robotic cart to become mobile. Additionally, it can build larger objects at a lower cost compared to that of either selective laser melting or electron beam melting, the two current methods of additive manufacturing with metal and that involve melting layers of powder. So far, the 'bot has been used to build a bench displayed this spring at the Friedman Benda gallery in New York, but Laarman speculates that it can be used to build anything, from concrete reinforcements to larger load-bearing architectural structures. Video