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Autonomous excavator constructs 6m high wall

A Swiss research team has developed an autonomous excavator capable of constructing a dry stone wall

Bob the Builder and his team would be proud. While Bob the Builder did have talking equipment, we haven’t quite managed conversational machinery just yet (it’s only a matter of time though!). However, researchers have taught an autonomous excavator to construct dry stone walls all on its own using boulders weighing several tonnes and other demolition debris.

In non-commercial markets, hand-made products are all the rage. But in the world of construction, building dry stone walls involves vast amounts of manual labour, thus making the by-hand method inefficient, time-consuming and costly.

A multidisciplinary team of researchers at ETH Zurich, a university in Switzerland, has developed a method of using an autonomous excavator, called HEAP, to construct a permanent retaining dry-stone wall that is 6m high and 65m long. The wall is embedded in a digitally planned and autonomously excavated park.

While not actually anthropomorphic, HEAP is sensitive to its area’s surroundings. Using sensors, HEAP can autonomously draw a 3D map of the construction site, mapping existing building blocks and stones for the wall’s construction.

The specially designed tools and machine vision capabilities enable the excavator to scan and grab large stones in its immediate environment. Using its own centre of gravity, the autobot can even calculate the stone’s approximate weight.

Encoded into the machine, an algorithm anticipates the best possible position for each rock. It can then conduct the task independently by placing the stones in their given desired location.

This one autonomous excavation can place 20–30 large stones in a single consignment, which is about as many as one delivery can supply.

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