A Mobile 3D printer to build Megastructures

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BuckyBot: A mobile 3D printer to build a 1 Km Dia. dome (yes, that's 1,000 meters)

Hello, I’m Philip Cox. I’ve been an Aerospace Systems Engineer for the last thirty years. I’ve done a lot of things, but I hope that the best is still ahead of me.

I’d like to present to you a concept that’s been cooking in my head for the past few decades. Let’s start with a little background … In R. Buckminster Fuller’s “critical path” he presents and illustration of Manhattan island with a huge geodesic dome covering much of the borough.

Bucky was the inventor (some say ‘popularizer’) of the geodesic dome – he envisioned covering entire cities with vast domes to protect them.  Bucky pointed to a number of reasons why such mega-structures are desirable. He was also quick to point out, however, the difficulties humanity would have building such structures using then-current construction technology. Undeterred, he extrapolated other possibilities of his geodesics.

Fuller realized that geodesic construction might permit one to make structures so large that the volume of air enclosed in them could actually outweigh the materials comprising the structure. If one enclosed heated air, the structure could conceivably become buoyant in the atmosphere – a vast hot-air balloon. I once sat down and calculated just how big one such geodesic dirigibles would have to be – it turns out that a sphere 800 meters or larger is the threshold at which the air inside the structure begins to out weigh the containing structure.

His concept appeared roughly twenty years before George Lucas gave us the floating city of Bespin. 

Fuller had no way to construct such a beast, of course. Which brings me to the sticking point: We can imagine mega-structures on Earth and in space, but we have devoted little or no effort into developing techniques to build them. Human construction technology remains mired in the past. We continue to build using traditional, waddle-and-daub, tinker-toy construction methodologies – only applying new materials as they’ve become available. Imagine the expense in resources required to build a dome over Manhattan one beam at a time... now imagine building a one kilometer sphere in space, one stick at a time, each lifted from Earth. We aren’t going to do it. That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t build mega-structures. I’ve pondered this question over my entire life. I’ve come to the conclusion that, to build big, we have to think small. . ..

Diatoms and Radiolaria have been making their own geodesic shells for over 500 million years. They secrete silica to form rigid frameworks to armor themselves or increase their apparent surface area for photosynthesis. These microscopic creatures secrete their structure – typically using a simple geometrical initiator, like a circle, triangle, hexagon, or some other simple geometric shape. If you perked up at the mention of an ‘initiator’, you probably suspect, now, where I’m going with this . . . fractals. In short, fractal constructions require an Initiator, a Generator, and a Rule (or Rules) of orientation. Time is too short here for further details of fractals, so, I’ll cut to the chase. The project I’ve been working on for years (mostly as a design exercise) is to create little open-source construction robots – I’ve been calling them BuckyBots – to build mega-structures.

A BuckyBot consists of a small 3D printer in which the print head has up to (maybe) 6 Degrees-of-Freedom. It makes a simple 3-dimensional fractal initiator, such as a tetrahedron, over and over, and over. That’s all it does – ever. It has the ability to climb, like a spider, onto and over the tetrahedrons it has already built to add another course to the structure. We give it simple orientation rules so that it changes its orientation relative to previous “cells”. Eventually, by following simple rules, it will construct a closed shape – like a dome, or a box, or whatever 3-dimensional shape we fancy. It can build any stiffening interior structure as required. Multiple...

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  • 1 × Arduino Mega To act as master, sends postional data out to all microcontollers over serial comms
  • 1 × Shield Board for Arduino Mega I designed a shield board that adds all the functions for orientation, navigation, communication, and servo driving to one stack
  • 1 × Custom Orientation/Navigation Board (see Will be posting this schematic and parts list as I get it built. Has GPS, compass, accelerometers...
  • 1 × Vlad's Hexabot Design from GrabCad Have redesigned vertually everything from this design, but it's still basically Vlad's concept of a Hexapod
  • 1 × micro-extruder of pretty much my own design vacuum-jacketted to conserve energy, a real screw-type extruder

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  • No soup for BuckyBot in 2015

    Ranarchy04/08/2015 at 13:21 0 comments

    Well, shit. Since BuckyBot was a quarter-finalist in 2014, we're locked out of the 2015 competition. Rules is rules...

    Is OK, though. We continue with mega-domes. When we can start to actually build things with a BuckyBot, we intend to crowd source.

    So, stay tuned, skullers ...

  • Screw Google...

    Ranarchy04/06/2015 at 15:58 0 comments

    ... they just told me I'm too old to work on their UAV's.

  • Progress Since 2014

    Ranarchy04/03/2015 at 18:48 0 comments

    1. I have a new circuit board that does the bot location and orientation. It has GPS, a compass, 3-axis accelerometer, 3-axis gyros, and a barometer. All on a board 4.5 cm x 3.5 cm (roughly). The design will shortly be available on the pages. Also, the bare boards will be available to the public at Cheap Dirty Boards.

    2. The LED controller to drive the leg servos didn't work out. Instead, I'm making a board using 18 one-shots and a good-ole 555-timer (with digital pots to control the servo pulse-width) that should drive the six legs of the BuckyBot.

    3. Extruder for the bot is almost complete. Most of this development will be parallel with the rest of the effort.

  • Is that a hint?

    Ranarchy04/03/2015 at 18:27 0 comments

    I haven't gotten around to entering the 2015 prize competition yet. So, I assume maybe the April 3 link on the blog might be a subtle suggestion. So, OK, we'll try again for 2015.

    Using transparent plastic or glass filament (in a clear epoxy matix), BuckyBot SHOULD be able to make a transparent/translucent dome and make a greenhouse.

    We've already explored solar distillation: Build a translucent dome over a salt lake/shallow bay. Sunlight warms up the water under the dome -- increasing humidity. At night, the dome inside surface will collect dew, which runs down the underside to the base of the dome. Fresh water from salt water! Catch basins around the base collect and hold the H2O.

  • MidSouthCon 33

    Ranarchy03/02/2015 at 21:38 0 comments

    Will be a panelist at MidSouthCon 33 upcoming in Memphis, March 20-22 if anybody wants to drop by.

  • New video available on youtube

    Ranarchy10/16/2014 at 21:51 0 comments

    In my opinion, it kicks ass... link over in the links list of this page. otherwise:

  • everything moot! It's over...

    Ranarchy10/13/2014 at 18:48 0 comments

    ... and congratulations to the five semifinalists ...

    ... as for BuckyBot, it's on to kickstarter ...

    ... will maintain the project here, however.

  • Kick-Ass Video

    Ranarchy10/13/2014 at 15:58 0 comments

    Well, since I screwed-up posting my "completed" systems design document on Sept. 28, I've decided to run amok, and present a visceral, kick'em-in-the ... uh ... teeth! ... yea, teeth! ... video as a response to the "promotional" video requirement for Oct. 27. It is unclear to me if considered contestants will we "invited" to submit such a video, or if it is a requirement for continued consideration. It should all be over by then, I think.

    Regardless, I'll post it way before then ... maybe this coming weekend. My video editing is limited to Kdenlive and openshot and downloaded pics and vids. "Damnit Jim, I'm an engineer, not a videographer!"

    ... is it just me, or did some of the videos submitted so far look like they spent all their time on the videos rather than their design?

  • Gerbers for Arduino Mega Shield...

    Ranarchy10/03/2014 at 12:46 0 comments

    ... have been placed on the "Electronics Design" page of All layers in Gerber files in a zip with the numerical drill file.

  • Replaced the System Design Document ...

    Ranarchy10/01/2014 at 22:12 0 comments

    ...with the document that was finished, but not uploaded by Sept. 28th.  my bad...  Unfortunately, much more comprehensive than the one it replaces ... which was just a place holder (and is what the judges will see).

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ronald whittaker wrote 01/26/2020 at 10:57 point

the junction where Bucks dream and the humanities fund meets is where man assures himself  of everlasting life threw his offspring from the grave and finely beats back the evil men whom covet the future for only themselves  and servants to sustain them . 

if that meeting doesn't come soon abject poverty  and soaring crime rates will look like a walk in the park on a sunny spring day . in the not so distant future.  by design .

  Are you sure? yes | no

Theodore Van Rooy wrote 04/07/2015 at 22:24 point

Love the idea, but I'm wondering how you maintain it?  when parts of the plastic become corroded by UV and weaken the structure how do you replace them or patch them?  I assume more bots of course, but when you're talking thousands of tons of plastic hanging over everyone's heads it seems... I don't know... scary.  And what if the citizens below don't want it anymore?  How do you take down a monolithic dome piece by piece?

  Are you sure? yes | no

Ranarchy wrote 04/08/2015 at 12:57 point

Don't assume it's plastic.  Only development domes are intended to be plastic (even though modacrylic shrugs off UV).  We plan to ultimately use stainless.  Depending on the size and environment, some domes may have internal structure - like hyperbolic/fractal struts.  Taking it down, if ever, is the reverse of putting it up.  Being scared of the dome over one's head?  Personal problem.  We go to sports events all the time in covered stadiums with tons of structure over the fans heads, but they want to be there.  BuckyBot, he don't worry about claustrophobics.

  Are you sure? yes | no

Theodore Van Rooy wrote 04/10/2015 at 03:07 point

Well I certainly would love to see a BuckyBot built dome!  If nothing else, it would be fascinating to watch and I'm sure there would be some wonderful applications for it.  I'll of course opt-out from living under one since I have "personal problems" with it ;-)  But hey, when the earth turns into a fossil fuel warmed desert and your domes are saving us all I might change my tune.  Good luck and I'll keep an eye on this project for sure.  

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Chuck Horner wrote 09/19/2014 at 03:42 point
I work with Randy and I have extensively drilled him about every aspect of this project. He has thought through and solved every issue I brought up. This sounds far out on the surface but the engineering is solid and this process can be achieved. I think there are many applications for this: Swimming pool enclosures(made from clear materials), How much does a sports dome cost to build? How about turning it over to make the worlds largest parabolic antenna? Good luck my friend.

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Ranarchy wrote 09/19/2014 at 14:34 point
... kind words from Chuck -- software engineer extraordinaire.

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Garrett Herschleb wrote 09/10/2014 at 03:36 point
Once you move past cheap, common 3d printer materials like plastic, it's going to really start paying off in time and complexity to divide the roles of your bots into shape makers, transporters, holders, and fusers.

  Are you sure? yes | no

Ranarchy wrote 09/10/2014 at 12:08 point
absolutely right Garrett. We plan to eventually build using stainless steel. There will BuckyBots to skin the structures, Bots to clean/polish surfaces, Bots to repair and maintain ... bot functions will multiply like lemmings.... Check out my blog, where I ramble about the future of BuckyBots and megastructures...

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Justin Corwin wrote 01/28/2015 at 00:30 point

Has stainless steel wire deposition been demonstrated? I thought it was all powder bed stuff, which would be hard to use in a mobile bot. I guess the patents are up this year, so you could design a new printer head yourself for any material you wanted.

  Are you sure? yes | no

Ranarchy wrote 01/28/2015 at 13:22 point

Don't know if SS wire has been demonstrated -- other metals certainly have. I have confidence in the evolution of technology, though. When we need it, it will come. I have no problem designing printer heads. I am also looking at a filament/extruder that deposits melted plastic around a filament as it goes.

  Are you sure? yes | no

Ranarchy wrote 08/27/2014 at 20:16 point
Somebody call Steven Colbert to get him to ante up $'s and get his face made into a dome over Manhattan ...

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davedarko wrote 08/27/2014 at 23:00 point
there is at least an stl file on

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ehughes wrote 08/25/2014 at 21:15 point
Congrats on making the cut!

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Ranarchy wrote 08/25/2014 at 21:40 point
Thanks, ehughes ... I appreciate the feedback you've given ... please keep it up...

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Ranarchy wrote 08/19/2014 at 21:31 point
Everyone, thanks much for your supporting comments. Regardless of how the HackaDay prize turns out, I promise to continue BuckyBot development. It might just be the culmination of my life's work . I have been through the math, and I can't really see anything that stops the show. It will take years before we get to the 1 Km dome, but the concept appears sound. I just need to grind out the hardware/software.

  Are you sure? yes | no

davedarko wrote 07/14/2014 at 16:31 point
Don't be disappointed by the outcome of the first voting! Your project seems to be very ambiguous and as soon as you will post a video of a crawling 3D printing hexapod it will change. Right now you are setting the first milestones as it seems and this may occur not as far developed as the projects of the top 15 list, so they might be skeptical about it's outcome. Just keep on working on it, find some guys who want to make more out of their hexapods to join you and post updates, videos, pictures, notes, sketches and stuff. I hope you don't feel offended by an arduino-blinky-stuff-developing greenhorn, but you should not look to the left and right but on your project :) I believe in your 3D printing hexapod! Good luck with it!

  Are you sure? yes | no

Ranarchy wrote 07/14/2014 at 13:50 point
I concur ... hope that will be the case. These are all really cool projects, with obviously clever protagonists, but how do they measure up to the stated goals of the contest? Regardless, TheHackadayPrize has spurred me into actually putting BuckyBot theory into practice, which I plan to continue REGARDLESS of the competition outcome.

  Are you sure? yes | no

Ranarchy wrote 07/09/2014 at 19:52 point
I gotta say, I'm kinda dissapointed in the voting so far ... BuckyBot wasn't even listed in the top 15 concepts. I thought the Hackaday Prize was trying to promote culture-changing hacks. It makes me wonder what's wrong with the concept? Just too far a stretch for believability?

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ehughes wrote 07/13/2014 at 20:01 point
I say nothing! I am also a bit disappointed with the number of things that are at the top of the list. I am not sure we another Arduino dev board controlling some leds, etc. As far as the voting, it seemed that the questions they post (Which project most likely to be used in another project) might bias the results. I think questions like these don't represent the best projects for this topic space. I.E. Big/new ideas can sometimes be hard to recognize next to the 100 other project that more of the same.

I honestly think it will work itself out by the time the the official judges get to it.

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Blecky wrote 08/18/2014 at 17:32 point
It's definitely out there, but that's the point right? You were one of the earliest featured projects on so you stood out, that's for sure. I sort of feel the same, but the main point of hacking isn't just to win a competition, it's to share something with the community.

I hope that someone gets something out of every project on this site.

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Moritz Walter wrote 08/19/2014 at 11:55 point
The more non-consensous a concept is, the higher potential it has to become truly culture-changing. And even though surely is about hacking, it's also emerging from a certain culture in it's own consens. So don't be so disappointed, if the masses don't understand it, it's just right! Hope that makes sense, happy hacking!

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Adam Fabio wrote 07/07/2014 at 06:09 point
Thanks for entering The Hackaday Prize! I'm following buckybot closely! Awesome stuff.
Usually I say don't forget to update - but with 26 updates as of this comment, i'd say you're doing pretty darn good :) Keep up the good work, and good luck on your way to SPaaaaaaace!

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ehughes wrote 07/03/2014 at 04:50 point
I really like this "Big" idea. (no pun intended). Good luck!

  Are you sure? yes | no

Ranarchy wrote 07/03/2014 at 14:52 point
Yeah, I saw this before on Hackaday. Not nearly as grandiose concept as the Buckybot, though. The more people we get thinking along these lines, the better for us all, isn't it? Power to them...

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zakqwy wrote 06/25/2014 at 18:58 point
Hi Randy--can you start posting more stuff on this page? I'm having trouble finding my way around your website; for example, the link you posted recently for the schematic PDF doesn't appear to work. Any way you can upload all your files to a Dropbox repo and share 'em that way? Maybe a directory structure like this:

- CAD part and assembly model files
- Gerbers and schematic files
- Firmware/code
- BOM spreadsheets
- Pictures, diagrams, etc

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Ranarchy wrote 06/25/2014 at 19:14 point
...will make it all better ... I'll either fix the pages, or make a dropbox. Believe it or not, I have a work breakdown structure for BuckyBot ... just haven't had time to put it up, yet.

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zakqwy wrote 06/25/2014 at 19:22 point
All good man. Looks like you're making great progress!

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Ranarchy wrote 06/13/2014 at 19:32 point
added design document (schematic and gerber files)

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Ranarchy wrote 06/02/2014 at 16:41 point is up now ... creating content for it ...

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Ranarchy wrote 05/27/2014 at 16:45 point
There is now a facebook page for the BuckyBot...

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ebaziuk wrote 05/10/2014 at 04:34 point
I'm working on something similar, how do I make contact?

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Ranarchy wrote 05/10/2014 at 21:33 point
drop me a line at:
I am workin on establishing a website dedicated to the project, so, my contact email for BuckyBots will change in a week or two.

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trev_614 wrote 05/09/2014 at 18:37 point
Something like this would have been great for use in containing dust form Chernobyl. I think I read somewhere that they are working on massive steel dome to cover the crumbling reactor building to contain radioactive dust that may be released as the building falls apart.

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Ranarchy wrote 05/08/2014 at 14:13 point
Please post your suggestions for uses of structures built by BuckyBot here ... I'm trying to accumulate as many as possible. The hack/make community can think of many more than just my old, decrepit neurons can manage ...

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