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Over the past century, rapid urbanization has prompted the building of more view obstructing high-rises. The progression of building the tallest building in the world since the Industrial Revolution was squarely in the hands of North American builders before 1996 (four of those buildings were demolished, while two were destroyed during the September 11 attacks), when Malaysia completed the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. There’s been controversy around the race to build the tallest skyscrapers as their construction comes with risks to human life and criticism of labor practices. For example, the Burj Khalifa, which was completed in 2010 and stands 2,722 feet tall, was built mostly by South and East Asian workers in less than ideal conditions.

A team of researchers from the Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control and Gramazio Kohler Research at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) have successfully employed drones to build a rope bridge, one strong enough for humans to cross. While there is much potential for drones to be used in delivering goods to customers, there could be applications for them in construction.

The drone-built rope bridge was demonstrated at the Flying Machine Arena (FMA), a portable space dedicated to autonomous flight. The project, headed by Federico Augugliaro and FMA founder Raffaello D’Andrea, is researching whether or not drones can supplement traditional construction machines.

“Flying machines offer a number of advantages compared to traditional construction machines. Specifically, they can reach any point in space and fly in or around existing objects,” the researchers said, possibly noting that they could be used for maintenance or accessing hard-to-reach areas during construction, which could help save not only money, but human lives as well. The algorithms used to construct the bridge took several years to develop, which means that drone usage on a larger scale could still be a ways into the future. Case in point: the researchers noted several drawbacks to drone usage, such as limited accuracy and payload.

Tensile structures (construction of elements carrying only tension and no compression or bending) fit very well this combination of characteristics and constraints,” researchers added. Some well-known tensile structures include The O2 in London, England and suspension bridges such as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, CA also have elements of tensile structures in them, meaning drones could play a part in maintaining these structures.

“The vehicles are equipped with a motorized spool that allows them to control the tension acting on the rope during deployment. A plastic tube guides the rope to the release point located between two propellers,” they said, describing how the drone was able to build the bridge.

The researchers used a material called Dyneema for the rope, which is composed of ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) that is 15 times stronger than steel. Dyneema is resistant to moisture, UV light and chemicals, and is already used in maritime, offshore, sailing, industrial and cut-resistant applications.

These advances have led drones to being used in a supervisory capacity for the building of the new stadium for Golden 1 Center, home of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings. The drones help monitor the progress of the building, which is slated to open in October 2016. While privacy concerns always come up when it comes to drones, drone software developers are optimistic about the future. “It’s not new to the construction industry that there would either be people standing and observing operations, or that there would be fixed cameras,” said Mani Golparvar-Fard, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Chris McFadden, vice president of communications at Turner Construction Company, which is overseeing the stadium project, said that the drones were only used after construction workers have gone home. “To be clear, we are not using drones to monitor workers or their activities,” he said. “Drones are actually flown once a week during off-hours when few people are on site, typically on Sunday, and they follow strict safety protocols such as not flying above people.” While drones still have legal challenges to overcome, they have shown, at least on a small scale, there’s great potential for their application in construction.

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