Design Decoded: The Architecture of Drones

drone architecture
Gramazio & Kohler, Flight Assembled Architecdture, FRAC Centre in Orléans, France, 2011-2012                               (image: François Lauginie via Gramazio & Kohler)

Drones can’t just destroy, they can build. Although the military uses of drones are widely debated, less discussed are their potentially revolutionary civilian implications. They aren’t yet widespread, but drones are being used by hobbyistsphotographersfarmersranchers, and they may even herald an entirely new type of architecture. Last year, Swiss architects Gramazio & Kohler, in collaboration with Raffaello D’Andrea, developed “Flight Assembled Architecture” – an experimental concept structure that employed small, unmanned aerial vehicles programmed to build.

Created as an installation for the FRAC Centre in Orléans, France in early 2012, the project models a speculative construction system that integrates robotics, digital fabrication, engineering, and design. Several small robotic “quadrocopters” lift 1,500 foam blocks into a complex cylindrical tower standing more than six meters high. The tower is a model for a speculative future habitat that would stand more than 600 meters tall and house 30,000 inhabitants. It makes sense to illustrate such a revolutionary concept with a skyscraper – after all, the skyscraper wouldn’t be possible if architects and engineers hadn’t embraced technologies such as steel construction and elevators. Construction drones are the bleeding edge of speculative building technology and they’re perfectly designed to create high-rise buildings in urban areas where construction can be incredibly difficult and costly. As Kohler noted in an essay for the architectural journal Log, “the conditions of aerial robotic construction are entirely liberated from the bottom-up accessibility of material, man, or [existing] machine.” These robots can create buildings without erecting scaffolding or using cranes. Drone-built designs aren’t beholden to current construction limitations and their use opens up a new possibility of architectural forms.

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Design Decoded: The Drones of World War I

kettering bug drone
The Kettering “Bug” (image: The United States Air Force)

Military aviation was born during the years preceding the World War I, but once the war began, the industry exploded. Barely more than a decade after Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully completed the first documented flight in history –achieving only 12 seconds of air time and traveling 120 feet– hundreds of different airplanes could be seen dogfighting the skies above Europe. Mastering the sky had changed the face of war. Perhaps due to their distance from the fighting, the United States trailed behind Europe in producing military fliers but by the end of the War, the U.S. Army and Navy had designed and built an entirely new type of aircraft: a plane that didn’t require a pilot.

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Design Decoded: Designing a Drone-Proof City

shura city drones
Shura City (image: Asher J. Kohn)

As drones become increasingly common tools of war and surveillance on the battlefield and in our cities, how are architects and designers responding? Previously, we’ve looked at personal counter-surveillance measures, but it’s likely that future designers will move beyond the scale of the individual to larger projects such as drone-proof architecture or perhaps even urban-scale counter-surveillance. Concerned about what he sees as the improper or unjustified use of drones, law student Asher J. Kohn has imagined how an anti-drone city might look and function. This isn’t a science fiction [cscenario, but a seriously considered urban design strategy. In fact, considering that the speculative plan for what Kohn has named “Shura City” is designed to counter the most technologically sophisticated weapons ever developed, the proposal is surprisingly low-tech.