Architecture, Robotics, Nano-engineering, and other Drones

In a recent The New Yorker Magazine issue, Nick Paumgarten reports the expanding-use of drones. In the recent months, I have been developing a strong interest to robotics and architecture, the recent becoming-multivalent drone is getting central to my interest. What can drones and other swarm nano-robots bring to architecture and urban design in terms of construction system? This leads to another one: what can drones bring to specific tasks in fields of geography, geology, landscape architecture, and other fields not directly related to those fields like urban exploration? In a very recent conversation on drones launched by Nick Paumgarten for The New Yorker, a reader asked him what can be potentially positive use of drones beside crime scene investigation, search and rescue, disaster relief. Nick Paumgarten answered as follows:
[T]here are lots of positive applications. They can be used for crop inspection, for wildlife monitoring — counting herds, protecting animals from poaches etc. — for gathering climate data. Good guys can use them to keep an eye on polluters.
And here we are, multi-task drones are getting out of their exclusive field of application: military market to progressively enter the vast but — probably — more or less lucrative market: the domestic market (this including police department but this is another story).
I have already mentioned the growing importance that robotics will take in architecture, in particular in manufacturing applications. In 2010 Harvard GSD's Martin Bechthold wrote an essay entitled The Return of the Future: A Second Go at Robotic Construction for the Architectural Design Magazine. This essay stresses the growing contribution of robotics to construction systems. His article explores current use of industrial robots in the fabrication of architectural components. But now we are expanding our curiosity into drones and swarm nano-robots, their possible use in a field that is in perpetual mutation. Some engineers, not related to architecture and construction, have already open some doors concerning these questions. Let's cite one: Vijay Kumar. But let's him aside for a couple of minutes. Before this, it is important to go back to Paumgarten's conversation on drones to place our discussion.

Suggested Article: Abraham Bachrach, Ruijie He, and Nicholas Roy | Autonomous Flight in Unstructured and Unknown Indoor Environments, 2011.

So what do we envision as some of the potentially positive use of drones? A question I borrow to the participant to the Nick Paumgarten on Drones conversation.

Suggested Article: Nick Paumgarten | The World of Surveillance, "Here's Looking at You" | The New Yorker, May 14, 2012, p. 46.

Until now, drone was confined to military use. Yet, Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institution and author of | Wired for War, a book about military robotics reveals that:

Suggested Book: Peter W. Singer
| Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century | Penguin Press, 2009.

The nature of technology is that it is introduced for one role and then it slippery-slops into unintended roles.
Indeed, the author of the excellent Wired for War, Peter Singer, pointed up the transformative capacity of drone, similar to other man-made technologies from computer, to tablets, to cell-phones.

Suggested Article: Noah Shachtman | Inside the Rose of the Warbots | Wired, February 4, 2009 (for an expanding read on drones…).
Their intelligence and autonomy is growing. It used to be that an aerial surveillance plane had to fly close. Now sensors on a U.A.V. can detect a milk carton from sixty thousand feet. The law's not ready for all this.

As Paumgarten writes, manufacturers understand an opportunity for diversification of the functions of the remote-controlled robot to broader tasks aiming at seeking out customers — farmers, fishermen, architects, engineers, meteorologists, robotics hobbyists —, from police surveillance to model-plane hobbyistsFrance-Drone, for example, proposes services such as photos, videos, or other data taken from the air to customers in varying sectors from agriculture to art, to sponsoring, to architecture, to urbanism, to construction, to golf, to cartography.
But the risk is that drone can be used for more suspicious functions. In 2003, as Nick Paumgarten writes:
[B]order vigilantes in Arizona began testing two drones to track illegal immigrants.
Suggested article: Spencer Ackerman | Homeland Security Wants to Spy on 4 Square Miles at Once || Wired - January 23, 2012

And drones will be (or are already) unsurprisingly used similarly in other countries where monitoring, tracking informal business, migration, or enemies are needed. But that is another story.

Nick Paumgarten relates this story of a Canadian aeronautical engineer named Tad McGeer, who, in the early nineties:
[H]elped design a drone that collected meteorological and atmospheric data.

Suggested article: Richard Conniff | Drones are Ready for Takeoff || Smithsonian Magazine, June 2011

Accordingly, drone can be used for collecting data, survey hazardous landscape, making a map.
In the below video, Vijay Kumar, a mechanical-engineering professor at the University of Pennsylvania's General Robotics, Automation, Sensing & Perception Lab (GRASP). Vijay Kumar, as Nick Paumgarten learns us, does not have any interest to military and surveillance. As mentioned, Drones, as Kumar confirms, can be used for:
First response (gas and biochemical leaks); Construction (beams, columns, etc.); Transportation; surveillance of multiple buildings; Search and rescue; Large scale environmental monitoring…
And the list of task assignments is far from being closed…

In this video, small-scaled flying robots performed a series of intricate tasks without mutual interference or collusion responding to varying task assignments. Those swarm robots are capable of mimicking avian flight. Vijay Kumar, who also leads the laboratory Swarm, and his team examines behavioral organization inspired by nature, biological groupings such as insect swarms, bird flocks and fish schools, and other specific species that act in groups like termites and ants. Here is how Kumar describes his laboratory Swarm:
This project brings together experts in artificial intelligence, control theory, robotics, systems engineering and biology with the goal of understanding swarming behaviors in nature and applications of biologically inspired models of swarm behaviors to large networked groups of autonomous vehicles.

Suggested article: Spring Berman, Quentin Lindsey, Mahmut Selman Sakar, Vijay Kumar, and Stephen Pratt | Study of group food retrieval by ants as a model for multi-robot collective transport strategies | School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard University/GRASP Laboratory, University of Pennsylvania/Department of Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology/School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University, 2010

More precisely, as Ani Hsieh, Adam Halasz, Spring Berman, and Vijay Kumar wrote:
Our work is inspired by experimental studies of ant house hunting and empirical models that predict the behavior of the colony that is faced with a choice between multiple candidate nests.
See this article: Ani Hsieh, Adam Halasz, Spring Berman, Vijay Kumar | Biological Inspired Redistribution of a Swarm of Robots Among Multiple Sites.

This is possible with algorithms that allow drone for processing complex functions. 
Such as architecture, robotics engineers also develop a strong interest in the study of biology for inspiration in the manufacture of robots. 
Researchers in varying fields from military to engineering are trying to engineer robots and airborne machines capable of imitating:
the movements of fish and the "echolocation" abilities of bats.  
This has been well documented, for example in Hsieh, Halasz, Berman and Kumar:
In nature, we often see complex group behaviors arise from biological systems composed of large numbers of organisms that individually lack the communication and computational capabilities required for centralized control. Such decentralized consensus-building behaviors are observed in a variety of social organisms, including ants, honeybees and cockroaches and have inspired much research on the development of self-organized task allocation strategies for multi-robot systems.

New opportunities… in a way. Kumar and his laboratory are not the only ones to engineer drones and remote-controlled swarm robots. But according to Kumar, as quoted in The New Yorker:
We are the only people to bring the physical design, the algorithms, the software for autonomous operation together in a holistic approach.
Still in the United States, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied SciencesRobobees. According to laboratory, RoboBees will be able to realize varying tasks such as hazardous environment exploration, traffic monitoring, search and rescue (in the aftermath of a natural disaster, the Harvard Group say), high resolution and climate mapping, and of course military surveillance, among others. In short, the same functions. You see how robotics labs are now investigating this field of research as demands for drones, and more broadly, nano-robots seem to be growing fast. RoboBee, a swarm robotic project launched by Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is a nature-inspired robot. The website provides some keys on this project:
The collaborators envision that the Nature-inspired research could lead to a greater understanding of how to artificially mimic the collective behavior and "intelligence" of a bee colony; foster novel methods for designing and building an electronic serrogate nervous system able to deftly sense and adapt to changing environments; and advance work on the construction of small-scale flying mechanical devices. More broadly, the scientists anticipate the devices will open up a wide range of discoveries and practical innovations, advancing fields ranging from entomology and developmental biology to amorphous computing and electrical engineering.

RoboBees © Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Originally appeared on Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
> Three categories: body, brain, and colony: "The Body involves all aspects of the proposed work that revolve around construction of a flapping-wing robot; The Brain incorporates all of the sensors, control (i.e. algorithms and software), and circuitry (i.e., hardware) to coordinate flight and target identification capabilities of the RoboBees. And; The Colony encompasses higher-level support required to accomplish objectives of a complex task in a collaborative manner." Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

The form of this robot, a bee, may have been influenced by the fact that, as Paumgarten points out:
I recalled a conversation with a warfare expert and robotics Cassandra who'd told me that robots now had the intelligence of insects, and that, according to Moore's Law, in seven years they'd have the intelligence of rats.
RoboBees © Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Originally appeared on Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
> "From flies to fish to lobsters, small insects and animals have long been ideal models for roboticists. Bees, for example, possess unmatched elegance in flight, zipping from flower to flower with ease and hovering stably with heavy payloads." Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

But, and back to our introductory question, what can drones bring to architecture? First off, the possibility for using drones in particular site of construction where humans won't be able to intervene in such sites.

In this above video, a team of swarm quadrotors is building tower-like cubic structures out of prefabricated beams. Of course, this team has weakness; among many others: their battery which is currently limited to up to about 20 minutes. But use of drones is not limited to construction.
Liam Young and Darryl Chen of Tomorrows Thoughts Today (TTT), are among these architects with strong interests in robotics. TTT recently built prototypes for their project entitled Electronic Countermeasures presented at the 2011 GLOW Festival in Eindhoven, the Netherlands— a project largely commented and reviewed. Electronic Countermeasures is inspired by the U.S. Government's air-drones. About Electronic Countermeasures, Liam Young says to The Urban Future an editorial project arm of The Urban Times:
Electronic Countermeasures © Tomorrows Thoughts Today.
Originally appeared on DOMUS.

Suggested articles: Electronic Countermeasures | Domus, 12 March 2012.
Alexander Phillips in conversation with Liam Young | Back to the Futurist: Liam Young | The Urban Future, 13 February 2012.
The Funambulist | Science not so Fiction /// National Security Drones vs Liam Young's Electronic Counter-Measures + Warsaw Scout Drone | The Funambulist, 11 March 2012.
For the skies above the city we have built a drone flock that drifts into formation to broadcast a local file sharing network. Part nomadic infrastructure and part robotic swarm they form a pirate internet, an aerial napster, darting between the buildings. These drones fly off and hover above the city, and create ad hoc connections and networks in a new form of nomadic territorial infrastructure. They are their place specific, temporary, local, WIFI community - a pirate internet. They swarm into formation, broadcasting their pirate network, and then disperse, escaping detection, only to reform elsewhere. Impromptu augmented communities form around the glowing flock. Their aerial dance and dynamic glowing formations gives expression to the digital communities of the city.

Electronic Countermeasures address both design and manufacture systems of an air-bone nomadic infrastructure. In a fashion, the way these flocks of swarm robots fly is similar to remote-controlled drones' way of fling. Some studies tackle the principles of controlling a group of robots over a wireless network. This, indeed, requires three interacting components: decentralized control, decentralized estimation, and a networking protocol.

See also: Mac Schwager, Nathan Michael, Vijay Kumar, and Daniela Rus | Time Scales and Stability in Networked Multi-Robot Systems | 2011 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, Shanghai International Conference Center, May 9-13, 2011, Shanghai, China.

In the case of TTT's drones flocks:
Electronic Countermeasure © Tomorrow Thoughts Today.
Originally appeared on DOMUS.

We have built a flock of GPS enabled quadcopter drones from components that were originally intended for aerial reconnaissance and police surveillance to create this flying pirate file sharing network. The drones are autonomous and drift above the public spaces of the city as a balletic interactive aerial choreography. Part nomadic infrastructure and part robotic swarm we have rebuilt and programmed the drones to broadcast their own local wifi network as a form of aerial Napster. They swarm into formation, broadcasting their pirate network, and then disperse, escaping detection, only to reform elsewhere.

Or a sort of pirating internet service, in a way, as people can upload files, photos and share data with one another as the drones float above the significant public spaces of the city. Beyond this, Electronic Countermeasures uses aerial reconnaissance and police surveillance components creating connections and networks in a new form of nomadic territorial infrastructure:
Electronic Countermeasure © Tomorrows Thoughts Today.
Originally appeared on DOMUS.

Revolutionary communities are coalescing around social networks and text messages and occupy the city with the force to topple governments. The U.S. military's has development autonomous aerial drones that they can be launched across a place like Egypt, when the government cut off internet access to prevent people from organizing protests. These drones would fly off and hover above the city, and creating ad hoc connections and networks in a new form of nomadic territorial infrastructure.
Electronic Countermeasures © Tomorrows Thoughts Today.
Originally appeared on DOMUS.
I am particularly curious with this growing interest to drones, nano-robotics, swarm robots in the architectural and engineering fields. And while use of drones and swarm robots appear to be currently vague, in fields and tasks such as urban exploration in regions with extreme climates and/or suffering from contamination and other hazards, remotely-controlled aircrafts can be useful to collect data from these areas. And I am thinking of guilt landscapes such as Chernobyl, Fukushima, or regions with extreme weathers like Arctic, to name a few. Another way of using drones in the architectural and engineering fields can be to analyse landscape pattern change facing pressing issues such as climate change, drought, floods, etc to communicate environmental issues. As one can see, use of drone in architecture and engineering is as inexhaustible as my curiosity can be…

Suggested book: Koert van Mensvoort and Hendrik-Jan Grievink | Next Nature ı Nature Changes Along With Us | Actar Editorial, 2012.

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