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MIT Better World

These instant architectural landmarks are designed to become community hubs—not unlike the cathedrals their vaulted curves bring to mind.

The Droneport project, initiated by Red Line, within Switzerland’s Afrotech-EPFL, seeks to create a route for drones to carry medical supplies to off-grid African communities, circumventing the need for traditional transportation infrastructure. These miniature bays for unmanned aerial vehicles would enable a technological shift that Class of 1942 Professor of Architecture and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering John Ochsendorf likens to the advent of mobile telecommunication, when cell phones connected communities where telephone lines had never been installed.

The project’s lead architect, Lord Norman Foster, of Foster + Partners, turned to Ochsendorf’s structural engineering consulting firm ODB Engineering, cofounded with MIT graduates Matthew DeJong SM ’05, PhD ’09 and Philippe Block SM ’05, PhD ’09, to develop the technical aspects of these buildings, which must rely as little as possible on imported materials and labor. The resulting structure is a self-supporting tile vault made of interlocking bricks, using techniques of the 19th-century architect Rafael Guastavino, whom Ochsendorf has been studying for more than a decade. (He directs MIT’s Guastavino Project, which documents and preserves tile vaults designed by the Guastavino Company in nearly a thousand US buildings, including New York’s Grand Central Terminal, the Boston Public Library, and Fariborz Maseeh Hall at MIT.)

“This is an example of research going into practice—and of universities collaborating with industry to create new possibilities,” says Ochsendorf. The team, also including Sixto Cordero MA ’16 and Luisel Zayas MA ’16, traveled to Venice in May to debut a prototype at the 2016 Architecture Biennale.

Droneport: By the Numbers

3×6: The protoype bay in Venice was built in only three weeks by six people.

8×10 m: Each bay measures 8 x 10 meters, and can be replicated in an undulating pattern.

3: The three-layer brick construction uses clay tiles from Spain for the base layer.

18k: France’s LafargeHolcim Research Center developed and Durabric and provided 18,000 units for the Droneport construction.