Safe Landing for Drones

4/24/2017

Visitors to downtown Knoxville may have wondered lately about the large, bright orange web of plastic and stainless steel that hangs over West Jackson Avenue like something from a Spider-Man movie.

The contraption is called a dronopod, and it’s made of two of the world’s largest freeform objects to come from a 3D printer, according to Keith Kaseman, a lecturer at the University of Tennessee College of Architecture and Design and partner at KBAS, an experimental spatial design firm recently dubbed the Knoxville Bureau of Air and Space.

The dronopod is a roughly 12-foot tall, 450-pound landing pad for drones attached to the side of West Jackson Workshops, which includes KBAS. It’s also meant to spark conversation about what cities will look like in a future where drones are as ubiquitous as cellphones.

“I imagine (the city) would look different and will definitely work in a different way,” Kaseman said standing on the roof of West Jackson Workshops on a recent afternoon surveying the city’s landscape. “This is an invitation to imagine that there will be a whole different level of technology used for production, and different building types we haven’t even begun to really play with yet.”

The idea for the dronopod came a little over one year ago after Kaseman received a drone as a surprise birthday gift and he began thinking about what kind of architecture would be needed to support a future full of drones.

It’s also illustrative of a growing effort to make Knoxville and the surrounding east Tennessee area a hub of advanced technologies innovation following a $250 million public-private partnership announced in 2015.

About a half-dozen organizations and individuals collaborated with Kaseman, the lead designer on the project, to create the dronopod. Among them were Branch Technology out of Chattanooga, a group that specializes in freeform 3D printing, using a robotic arm to spew a web of carbon-infused plastic, as opposed to the traditional 3D printing process that builds layer by layer.

In 2015 Kaseman and Branch created the TN-01, at the time the tallest freeform sculpture to be created by a 3D printer, currently on display at the Museum of Design Atlanta.

Dronopod was installed on the side of West Jackson Laboratories in mid-March and will be on display at least through May. The piece harnesses the same technique behind the TN-01, mimicking the geometry of nature to create a lighter weight structure. The bright orange paint serves to protect the plastic from degrading in the sun.

The project received $5,000 in funding from the UT school of architecture and also involved a collaboration with the UT Fab Lab, which manufactured the stainless steel components of the dronopod.

“I think its value is more than the claim that yeah, everyone is going to be having drones,” said Jason Young, director of the school of architecture at UT, of the dronopod. “I think he’s more latching on to the question of drone space in the city. The 3D printing becomes kind of an alibi to do a piece that’s provocative of a bunch of cultural discussions.”

Using a concept called “augmented reality” the team behind the dronopod has also imagined what a large-scale use of the dronopod would look like.

Augmented reality generates computer images superimposed on top of a real image in an app, and in the case of the dronopod, envisions the flight paths of several drones flying onto and around the landing pad.

“The main goal is just to spark imagination,” said Breanna Browning, a master’s student at UT and collaborator on the project. “We call it the urban imaginary.”

A future where drones are everywhere may be far off, but the dronopod serves as a starting point for imagining what that city would look like, Kaseman said.

“It’s inevitable, just like our phones,” he said. “We couldn’t imagine how many ways we could use them 10 years ago. What will that city look like?”

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by RACHEL OHM

The East Tennessee Economic Development Agency markets and recruits business for the 15 counties in the greater Knoxville-Oak Ridge region of East Tennessee. Visit www.eteda.org

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