Imagine a future where massive, flying robots assemble complex structures like skyscrapers or houses, with all the machines working as one, coordinated through a wireless network and custom algorithm.


Granted, a similar process already takes place today on a much smaller scale, albeit guided by human pilots.

But with the potential for human error eliminated, construction times could be drastically reduced. Ultimately, a hyper-streamlined system could result in thousands of construction jobs being eliminated and a surge in urban sprawl.

Such an invention, properly scaled upward, would be simply revolutionary -- and that radical vision, scarcely imagined even in science fiction, took its first step toward becoming a reality in 2011.

University of Pennsylvania PhD candidate Daniel Mellinger, in a project by the school's GRASP Lab (General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception), created a set of flying, networked robot builders that can quickly and accurately assemble structures made out of magnetic rods.

The only input required from a human equipped with such a system would be her choice of blueprint: the drones handle everything else.

The robotic helicopters, equipped with a specialized grabbing mechanism for Mellinger's latest demonstration, were shown last year to be dexterous enough to do mid-air flips, pass through windows, perch on vertical surfaces and swarm in predefined patterns.

While it was just a small-scale project, it was likely to go down as one of the first to truly show the potential of hive-mind robotic assistants.

"I think this work is a first step in autonomous aerial robotic assembly," Mellinger told Raw Story. "I think it is reasonable to say that in the near future we can have large-scale aerial robots autonomously building structures that are useful to humans."

This video is from the University of Pennsylvania's GRASP Lab, published Jan. 13, 2010.

Image credit: 'Back to the Future,' 1985, copyright Universal Pictures.