The Future is Here: Cleaning Micro-Robots

mab1No one likes the idea of having to clean their homes or living spaces. Its time consuming, repetitive, and never seems to end. But thanks to some new concepts, which were featured this year at the Electrolux Design Labs competition, a day may be coming when all such maintenance can be handled by machines, and not the large, bulky kinds that are often featured in sci-fi shows and novels.

Instead, the new concept for household cleaning robots focuses on the growing field of swarm robotics. That was the concept behind Mab, a series to tiny robots that fly around the house and determine what needs cleaning. Designed by Adrian Perez Zapata, a 23-year old student from Bolivia, the Mab concept utilizes swarm programming to allow all 908 of its insect-like robots to carry out group functions.

mabEach of the tiny robots lives within a spherical core (picture above), and once they are released, they venture out and depositing tiny amounts of water and cleaning solution onto surfaces that have been identified as dirty. Then, having sucked up the dirty liquid, the swarm returns to their core where they unload and await further instructions or the next schedules cleaning cycle.

The robots fly around by means of several tiny, spinning propellers, and their energy comes from built-in solar panels and a battery unit that is recharged whenever they are in the core unit. Zapata claimed that he derived much of his inspiration for the design from the “robo-bee” research being conducted at Harvard, but initially got the idea from watching actual insects at work one day:

I was in my university gardens when I observed the controlled flight of bees pollinating a flower, and how magical it is to see swarms of bees working together. My concept Mab only requires a short initial configuration to function autonomously, so you could arrive home and see a swarm of mini-robots roaming around cleaning independently. This means you could sit back and relax, as you observe with great astonishment the little Mab fairies working their magic.

Mab2Zapata’s design won first place in the 2013 Electrolux Design Labs competition, an annual contest created to encourage designer students from all over the world to come up with ideas and solutions for future living. This year’s theme was Inspired Urban Living, featuring three focus areas to choose from: Social Cooking, Natural Air and Effortless Cleaning, and drew some rather impressive ideas!

For example, second place went to Luiza Silva of Brazil for her design concept known as Atomium, a home 3-D printer for food that uses molecular ingredients to construct food layer by layer. You simply draw the shape of the food you would like to eat and show it to the Atomium, which then scans the image and prints the specified food in the desired shape.

atomiumThird place went to Jeabyun Yeon from South Korea for the Breathing Wall, an “air cleaning concept which pulsates and changes shape as it cleans the air.” Inspired by fish gills, It can also be customized to suit individual needs as it scents the air you breathe and changes color according to your choice.

After that, the finalists included: Nutrima, a device for instantly assessing food’s nutritional value and possible toxicity; Kitchen Hub, an app to keep track of food in the fridge, encourage healthy eating, and reduce waste; OZ-1, an air purifier worn as a necklace; 3F, a shape-shifting autonomous vacuum cleaner; and Global Chef, a hologramatic device for bringing virtual guests to the dinner-table.

breathing_wallTaken together, these small bits of innovation are indicative of a much larger trend, where touchscreens, 3-D printing, scanners, swarm robots, and smart environments address our needs in ways that are intuitive, automated, efficient, and very user friendly. The only downside… they are likely to make us ever lazier than we already are!

In the meantime, check out these videos of the Mab, Atomium, Breathing Wall, and other cool inventions that were featured at the 2013 Electrolux Design Labs competition:



Breathing Wall:


Kitchen Hub:



Global Chef:

Sources:, (2),

Building the Future: 3D Printing and Silkworms

arcology_crystalWhen it comes to building the homes, apartment blocks and businesses headquarters of the future,  designers and urban planners are forced to contend with a few undeniable realities. No only are these buildings going to be need to be greener and more sustainable, they will need to be built in such a way that doesn’t unnecessarily burden the environment.

Currently, the methods for erecting a large city building are criminally inefficient. Between producing the building materials – concrete, steel, wood, granite – and putting it all together, a considerable amount of energy is expended in the form of emissions and electricity, and several tons of waste are produced.

anti-grav3d2Luckily, there are many concepts currently on the table that will alter this trend. Between using smarter materials, more energy-efficient design concepts, and environmentally-friendly processes, the future of construction and urban planning may someday become sustainable and clean.

At the moment, many such concepts involve advances made in 3-D printing, a technology that has been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years. Between anti-gravity printers and sintering, there seems to be incredible potential for building everything from settlements on the moon to bridges and even buildings here on Earth.

bridge_3One case in particular comes to us from Spain, where four students from the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia have created a revolutionary 3-D printing robot. It’s known as Stone Spray, a machine that can turn dirt and sand into finished objects such as chairs, walls, and even full-blown bridges.

The brainchild of Anna Kulik, Inder Prakash, Singh Shergill, and Petr Novikov, the robot takes sand or soil, adds a special binding agent, then spews out a fully formed architectural object of the designers’ choosing. As Novikov said in an interview with Co.Design:

The shape of the resulting object is created in 3-D CAD software and then transferred to the robot, defining its movements. So the designer has the full control of the shape.

robot-on-site_0So far, all the prototypes – which include miniature stools and sculptures – are just 20 inches long, about the size of a newborn. But the team is actively planning on increasing the sizes of the objects this robot can produce to architectural size. And they are currently working on their first full-scale engineering model: a bridge (pictured above).

If successful, the robot could represent a big leap forward in the field of sustainable design. Growing a structure from the earth at your feet circumvents one of the most resource-intensive aspects of architecture, which is the construction process.

And speaking of process, check out this video of the Stone Spray in action:

At the same time, however, there are plans to use biohacking to engineer tiny life forms and even bacteria that would be capable of assembling complex structures. In a field that closely resembles “swarm robotics” – where thousands of tiny drones are programmed to build thing – “swarm biologics” seeks to use thousands of little creatures for the same purpose.

silkpavilionMIT has taken a bold step in this arena, thanks to their creation by the Mediated Matter Group that has rebooted the entire concept of “printed structures”. It’s called the Silk Pavilion, a beautiful structures whose hexagonal framework was laid by a robot, but whose walls were shell was created by a swarm of 6,500 live silkworms.

It’s what researchers call a “biological swarm approach to 3-D printing”, but could also be the most innovate example of biohacking to date. While silkworms have been used for millennia to give us silk, that process has always required a level of harvesting. MIT has discovered how to manipulate the worms to shape silk for us natively.

silkpavilion-2The most immediate implications may be in the potential for a “templated swarm” approach, which could involve a factory making clothes just by releasing silkworms across a series of worm-hacking mannequins. But the silkworms’ greater potential may be in sheer scale.

As Mediated Matter’s director Neri Oxman told Co.Design, the real bonus to their silkworm swarm its that it embodies everything an additive fabrication system currently lacks. 

It’s small in size and mobile in movement, it produces natural material of variable mechanical properties, and it spins a non-homogeneous, non-woven textile-like structure.

What’s more, the sheer scale is something that could come in very handy down the road. By bringing 3-D printing together with artificial intelligence to generate printing swarms operating in architectural scales, we could break beyond the bounds of any 3-D printing device or robot, and build structures in their actual environments.

silkpavilion-1In addition, consider the fact that the 6,500 silkworms were still viable after they built the pavilion. Eventually, the silkworms could all pupate into moths on the structure, and those moths can produce 1.5 million eggs. That’s enough to theoretically supply what the worms need to create another 250 pavilions.

So on top of everything else, this silkworm fabrication process is self-propagating, but unlike plans that would involve nanorobots, no new resources need to be consumed to make this happen. Once again, it seems that when it comes to the future of technology, the line between organic and synthetic is once more blurred!

And of course, MIT Media Lab was sure to produce a video of their silkworms creating the Silk Pavilion. Check it out:

Sources:, (2)

The Future of Cities and Urban Planning

future-city-1With the development of vertical farms, carbon capture technology, clean energy and arcologies, the future of city life and urban planning is likely to be much different than it does today. Using current trends, there are a number of people who are determined to gain some understanding of what that might look like. One such group is Arup, a design and engineering firm that produced a mockup that visualizes what urban environments will look like in 2050.

Based on the world as it is today, certain facts about the future seem relatively certain. For starters, three-quarters of the population will live in cities, or 6.75 billion of the projected 9 billion global total. In addition, everyone will have grown up with the Internet, and its successors, and city residents will have access to less natural resources than they do today, making regeneration and efficiency more of a priority.

Add to this several emerging technologies, and our urban environments are likely to look something like the building mockup below. As you can see, it has its own energy systems (“micro-wind,” “solar PV paint,” and “algae facade” for producing biofuels). There is an integrated layer for meat, poultry, fish, and vegetable farming, a “building membrane” that converts CO2 to oxygen, heat recovery surfaces, materials that phase change and repair themselves, integration with the rest of the city, and much more.


Most futuristic of all is the fact that the structure is completely modular and designed to be shifted about (by robots, of course). The building has three layer types, with different life-spans. At the bottom is a permanent layer – with a 10 to 20-year lifespan – which includes the “facade and primary fit-out walls, finishes, or on-floor mechanical plant” – and a third layer that can incorporate rapid changes, such as new IT equipment.

As Arup’s Josef Hargrave described the building when unveiling the design:

[A]ble to make informed and calculated decisions based on their surrounding environment… [a] living and breathing [structure] able to support the cities and people of tomorrow.

In short, the building is designed with personal needs in mind, based on information gleamed from a person’s behaviors, stated preferences, and even genetic information.

aircleaning_skyscraper3But what is even more interesting is how these buildings will be constructed. As countless developments are made in the field of robotics, biotechnology and nanotechnology, both the materials used and the processes involved are likely to be radically different. The rigid construction that we are used to is likely to give way to buildings which are far more flexible, adaptive, and – best of all – built by robots, drones, tiny machines and bacteria cultures.

Once again, this change is due mainly to the pressures that are being placed on urban environments, and not just technological advances. As our world becomes even more densely populated, greater proportions of people live in urban environments, and resources become more constrained, the way we build our cities must offer optimum efficiency with minimal impact.

nanomachineryTowards this end, innovations in additive manufacturing, synthetic biology, swarm robotics, and architecture suggest a future scenario when buildings may be designed using libraries of biological templates and constructed with biosynthetic materials able to sense and adapt to their conditions.

What this means is that cities could be grown, or assembled at the atomic level, forming buildings that are either living creatures themselves, or composed of self-replicated machines that can adapt and change as needed. Might sound like science fiction, but countless firms and labs are working towards this very thing every day.

It has already been demonstrated that single cells are capable of being programmed to carry out computational operations, and that DNA strains are capable of being arranged to carry out specialized functions. Given the rapid progress in the field of biotech and biomimetics (technology that imitates biology), a future where the built environment imitates organic life seems just around the corner.

biofabrication For example, at Harvard there is a biotech research outfit known as Robobees that is working on a concept known as “programming group dynamics”. Like corals, beehives, and termite colonies, there’s a scalar effect gained from coordinating large numbers of simple agents to perform complex goals. Towards this end, Robobees has been working towards the creation of robotic insects that exhibit the swarming behaviors of bees.

Mike Rubenstein leads another Harvard lab, known as Kilobot, which is dedicated to creating a “low cost scalable robot system for demonstrating collective behaviors.” His lab, along with the work of researcher’s like Nancy Lynch at MIT, are laying the frameworks for asynchronous distributed networks and multi-agent coordination, aka swarm robotics, that would also be capable of erecting large structures thanks to centralized, hive-mind programming.


In addition to MIT, Caltech, and various academic research departments, there are also scores of private firms and DIY labs looking to make things happen. For example, the companies Autodesk Research and Organovo recently announced a partnership where they will be combining their resources – modelling the microscopic organic world and building bioprinters – to begin biofabricating everything from drugs to nanomachines.

And then there are outfits like the Columbia Living Architecture Lab, a group that explores ways to integrate biology into architecture. Their recent work investigates bacterial manufacturing, the genetic modification of bacteria to create durable materials. Envisioning a future where bacterial colonies are designed to print novel materials at scale, they see buildings wrapped in seamless, responsive, bio-electronic envelopes.

ESA_moonbaseAnd let’s not forget 3D printing, a possibility which is being explored by NASA and the European Space Agency as the means to create a settlement on the Moon. In the case of the ESA, they have partnered with roboticist Enrico Dini, who created a 3-D printer large enough to print houses from sand. Using his concept, the ESA hopes to do the same thing using regolith – aka. moon dust – to build structures on Earth’s only satellite.

All of these projects are brewing in university and corporate labs, but it’s likely that there are far more of them sprouting in DIY labs and skunkworks all across the globe. And in the end, each of them is dedicated to the efficiency of natural systems, and their realization through biomimetic technology. And given that the future is likely to be characterized by resources shortages, environmental degradation and the need for security, it is likely to assume that all of these areas of study are likely to produce some very interesting scenarios.

As I’ve said many times before, the future is likely to be a very interesting place, thanks to the convergence of both Climate Change and technological change. With so many advances promising a future of post-scarcity, post-mortality, a means of production and a level of control over our environment which is nothing short of mind-boggling – and a history of environmental degradation and resource depletion that promises shortages, scarcity, and some frightening prospects – our living spaces are likely to change drastically.

The 21st century is going to be a very interesting time, people. Let’s just hope we make it out alive!

Sources:, (2)