MIT’s giant mobile 3D printer can build a building in 14 hours, and some day it may be headed to Mars

At first glance, the Digital Construction Platform looks as awkward as its name. A nozzle is attached to the end of a pair of robotic arms atop a rover-like vehicle outfitted with tank treads. Then there’s a flatbed trailer attached to the back, with two big metal tanks strapped to its top. The system is actually a giant, mobile 3D printer, and the MIT team behind it believes it could help revolutionize home construction both here on Earth and other planets in the distant future.

The notion of 3D printing a house isn’t a new one, of course. It’s been tried before with varying degrees of success. What sets this project apart from much of its competition, however, is a move away from modularity, toward a system capable of printing a structure in one single go.

The system is freed of the special constraints of a more traditional 3D printer by the long industrial robotic arm out front. Another, more precise arm is attached to the end of that one, allowing it to be controlled with much more precision. This gives the system much a larger build space than a traditional 3D printer, which is constrained by the limited volume of its print bed.

The team has been working on the ‘bot since 2011, developing it through multiple iterations. This morning, it showcased what it’s been working on in the form of a quick time-lapse YouTube video, which features the platform constructing a 12-foot-high dome made out of a combination of foam and concrete, creating a structure that is solid, while still sporting space for things like wires and pipes to be inserted in its side.

In all, the process took a tad under 14 hours to complete. The video, however, is just the beginning of the team’s ambitious goals. Steven Keating, a recent PhD grad in mechanical engineering, authored the paper on the project that went live this week. He’s speak about his team’s ambitions with a rapid-fire enthusiasm that travels from the MIT labs to housing structures being built on Mars in a matter of seconds.

The project, he explains, was born out of a desire to create machines and structures with clear biological inspiration — something that’s all the rage in the robotics world these days. The system is programmable and can currently be operated with the push of a button. But if the platform is going to do its thing in extreme conditions like the Antarctic tundra (or, for that matter, Mars), it’s going to take full autonomy.

“Our future vision for this project is to have self-sufficient robotic systems,” Keating explains. “Just like a tree gathers its own energy, our platform is being developed toward the design goal of being able to gather its own energy. We’ve shown that through photovoltaic energy. And being able to gather and use local materials.”

With the proper combination of sensors, the system can customize a build based on conditions like light and weather and can utilize its own surroundings as the basis of its structures. The paper even goes so far as proposing walls built from organic living material like cyanobacteria, which can adapt to the environment, furthering the team’s initial goal of creating a biological structure.

Keating is also quick to point out the deliberate move of referring to the machine as a platform, rather than a 3D printer. The goal is to create a robotic system capable of several different functions working in tandem to create a structure, including digging and milling, in addition to 3D printing.

But while many of the team’s goals read like works of science fiction, Keating says he believes that the system will be able to start building real-world structures in the near future.

“My guess is you’ll see it happen in the next few years,” he explains. “You’ll start to see real structures made from these things. It’s going to be widespread and we won’t be able to make your house with this in the next five years, but there will be structures being built.