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October 4, 2018

Fiberglass-spinning robots could be construction workers of the future

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Much like a silkworm uses a single thread to swaddle itself in a cocoon, a new kind of robot spins a single strand of material around its body to build custom-shaped fiberglass structures.

The new robots could create customized construction materials on-site, unlike other industrious bots that assemble premade building blocks (SN: 3/22/14, p. 8). Fleets of the fiberglass-spinning bots may someday erect buildings and bridges in remote or dangerous locations, researchers report online September 26 in Science Robotics.

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Each robot, slightly larger than a 1-liter bottle, is girded by a silicone balloon and topped with an arm that turns like a propeller. To build a piece of piping, the robot’s arm winds resin-coated fiberglass thread around its puffed-up silicone belly. Ultraviolet light then hardens the resin and glues the fiberglass strands together. When the robot completes a 9-centimeter-long segment, its belly deflates and the machine scoots up the tube where the arm resumes spinning fiberglass. By tilting in a new direction, the bot can control how the tube bends.

Designer and roboticist Markus Kayser and his MIT colleagues commissioned 16 of their fiberglass-spinning bots to build curved tubes up to 4.1 meters long. This bouquet of fiberglass pipes withstood seven months of Massachusetts autumn and winter weather — an “extremely impressive” demonstration of the bots’ capabilities, says Nathan Melenbrink, a roboticist at Harvard University.

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