Earth works

The military could benefit from a new construction technique that mimics the complexities of termite mounds.

Rapid manufacturing technologies could make it possible to produce self-sufficient and self-building structures for military and space use, according to UK researchers.

A team led by Loughborough University is developing the next generation of construction technology by applying rapid manufacturing techniques to simulate in buildings the self-sufficiency and complexity of termite mounds.

The research could lead to autonomous machines that bypass builders and create large self-regulating structures with finely tuned internal environments for use on the battlefield or in remote areas.

Rapid manufacturing techniques build up 3D slices of an object such as an automotive part and ‘print’ out the information to a machine that constructs it in ‘freeform’. But the technique could also be capable of recreating complex large-scale buildings, the researchers claimed.

Project leader Dr Rupert Soar, of the school of mechanical and manufacturing engineering at Loughborough, explained that termite mounds have networks of tunnels and air conduits that optimise ventilation, temperature, air quality and moisture levels to the environment. The team plans to go out to Namibia to digitally scan termite mounds.

‘If you can translate this complex 3D architecture into human-built structures you’ve got something useful. No builder could create the level of complexity needed, but freeform construction could,’ Soar said.

‘We could drive a fabricating machine to anywhere in the world, add sand, mix it with a cellulose binder and then start to build something equivalent to a mud hut but with a very complicated internal structure that can capture condensation and maintain a constant temperature.’

Structures that regulate their own temperature, use simple materials and are self-sufficient could be particularly useful for the military in arid, hostile environments, he said.

‘The military want deployable structures that self-regulate and are environmentally benign. They’ve had a lot of flak for leaving Portakabins in the desert,’ Soar said. ‘We could build anywhere, without needing to be next to a waste system for example, because the structure is self-sufficient.’ Soar has also applied to ESA to include the technology on the upcoming Aurora trip to Mars.

The team hopes in the next stage of the project to develop autonomous extrusion machines similar to concrete booms that squeeze out a paste like toothpaste, but manipulate properties like porosity on a fine scale by injecting compressed air and shaping with trowels.

‘The construction industry is craving the process technology that brought benefits to the manufacturing industry 10-15 years ago when we all went to automation and computer control,’ Soar said. The team is working with British Gypsum on a powder deposition process where a series of automated nozzles pass over a bed and build up walls.

The team’s ambitious long-term aim involves using autonomous robots that communicate with each other to build the structure. ‘The construction process of the future will be performed by swarms of collaborating construction agents, like robotic termites.’ These would then become part of the fabric of the structure itself.