Auto digger builds 6m high wall

By: Chris McCullough

Researchers in Switzerland have developed an autonomous excavator called HEAP and taught it how to build a six-metre-high stone wall

The project was carried out by researchers at the ETH Zurich University who developed technology that saw the excavator construct the wall (65-metre long and six-metre high) using boulders weighing several tonnes as well as demolition debris.

The excavator constructed a wall, 65m long and 6m high

Robot HEAP (Hydraulic Excavator for an Autonomous Purpose) is a 12-tonne Menzi Muck M545 walking excavator that was modified by the team.

To develop the robot, the researchers installed a GNSS global positioning system, a chassis-mounted IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit), a control module, as well as LiDAR sensors in its cabin and on its excavating arm. This building task normally takes a lot of time and vast amounts of manual labour, but the robotic excavator carried the task out with ease.

Dry stone walls are resource efficient, as they use locally sourced materials, such as concrete slabs that are low in embodied energy.

The wall was built embedded in a digitally planned and autonomously excavated landscape and park.

The team of researchers included Gramazio Kohler Research, the Robotics Systems Lab, Vision for Robotics Lab, and the Chair of Landscape Architecture. They developed this innovative design application as part of the National Centre of Competence in Research for Digital Fabrication (NCCR dfab).

Using sensors, the excavator can autonomously draw a 3D map of the construction site and localise existing building blocks and stones for the wall’s construction.

Specifically designed tools and machine vision approaches enable the excavator to scan and grab large stones in its immediate environment. It can also register their approximate weight as well as their centre of gravity.

An algorithm determines the best position for each stone, and the excavator then conducts the task itself by placing the stones in the desired location. The autonomous machine can place 20 to 30 stones in a single consignment, about as many as one delivery could supply.

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