Hammers, nails, and two-by-fours: These are the materials from which homes have been built. But a fascinating new study in the journal Science Robotics details research being done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that looks at the possibilities for autonomy in the construction world, including the potential for a real, working autonomous construction rig.

Overall, the hope is to incorporate the cutting edge of 3D printing, robotics, and digital design to redefine how humanity deals with its oldest engineering challenge: building ample, adequate shelter for everybody. The end result is slightly utopian. Imagine making construction quick and cheap enough to make home-ownership more realistic for future generations, and even let a person’s home mature and evolve right along with them.

It’s an idea that MIT engineer Dr. Steven Keating thinks could one day bring humanity’s building processes up to par with Mother Nature.

“If you look at a tree, a tree pulls 99 percent of its material from the air,” Keating tells Inverse. “Instead of having to go out and mine and ship to a factory, it can gather its own energy and material. It can adapt to its environment.”

By contrast, traditionally built structures around the world consume about 40 percent of the world’s raw materials, Robert Stuart-Smith of University College London, who co-wrote another of this week’s autonomous construction papers, tells Inverse.

Improved construction processes are greatly needed “in both the developed and developing worlds,” Stuart-Smith says. “Our lifestyles and culture have changed with technological progress. Our buildings need to keep pace.”

One way to keep construction technology on the cutting edge? Designing an autonomous construction rig, as designed by Keating and seen in the video below.

In its tests, Keating’s autonomous construction platform was able to autonomously 3D-print a domed structure almost 50-feet across and more than 12 feet tall, out of insulation foam. The whole process took just over half a day, meaning that while they still can’t print buildings as physically large as some other novelty projects, their approach is at least practical. It could dramatically reduce the draw new structures place on a community’s time and resources.

Right now, the rig is building with materials provided by its creators, but the same MIT team that built it is also investigating the ability to pick up and incorporate materials from a building site, like dirt and even ice, into a newly forming structure. Combined with the impact of 3D printing the “bones” of each structure, this could provide that plant-like ability to self-assemble from components that are already nearby. It could eliminate the need to ship large quantities of pre-fabricated building components over long distances; dust- and ice-printing are just two of many approaches favored by NASA for one day printing large structures on the Moon or Mars.

While this test skeleton for a domed structure was printed out of insulation foam, Keating pointed out that one extremely common modern building practice involves stacking Styrofoam blocks to create a wall-shaped space into which workers can pour concrete. Their system, he claimed, should be more than capable of facilitating those sorts of processes.

Moreover, autonomous construction platforms could dynamically adjust a structure’s digital design in response to unforeseen aspects of the building site (huge shelves of rock or, quite literally, ancient traditional burial grounds). This would save time and money on manual redesigns.

The researchers think the freedom of digital design and manufacture could totally change the role that a structure can play over the course of a person’s life. Autonomous design modifications could respond not only to environmental concerns but lifestyle as well. This autonomous building rig works directly from digital design files, making it easy to change the design of the structure it creates, or quickly print and add new rooms.

Digital Construction Platform.

“An autonomous architecture need not be an isolated architecture,” Vijay Pawar, who co-authored one of this week’s papers with Stuart-Smith, tells Inverse. “A house can engage with this meaningfully, not only as a passive participant, but in playing a more active role in adapting to a person’s changes in lifestyle over the lifespan of the building. This may involve adapting room arrangements based on the needs of growing children.”

For Keating, though, what’s most exciting in the near-term is the idea of making structures quicker, cheaper, and better than ever before. 3D printing the basic geometry of a structure “makes cost totally independent of that geometry,” he says.

The impact of autonomous 3D construction may be felt all over the industry. 3D printed walls could have internal density gradients perfectly (and automatically) tailored to their particular shape and placement, making non-standard building designs and construction in unforgiving environments both easier and sturdier.

As Pawar puts it, at that point “everything becomes a bespoke project.”

The construction industry does not care about potential, however, and Keating’s team is well aware they will need to provide real, working systems to make any headway.

“We’ll talk to construction companies, and they’ll say they’re a very innovative company because they put in a new type of window glass in their last building,” Keating says. “It can be hard to break into.”

So, for now, automation may be marching toward the construction industry, but it’s unlikely to totally phase out the age of physical labor.

“Our vision is full self-sufficiency, but that’s not realistic in the near future,” Keating says. “In the near future, it’s about creating something that can step right into a working construction site.”

Photos via Mediated Matter