Bots on the job: The past, present and future of robotic builders
Although it may not be apparent at first — or even second — glance, robotic technology is already in use on the job site. For now, routine applications are minimal and highly specific, such as scanning and grade control. But that’s set to change, and in a big way.
The rise of technologies like artificial intelligence and mobile digital fabrication, as just two examples, stands to underpin the development of the next generation of robotic helpers in the field. Whether the ‘bots will simply augment, fundamentally change or altogether replace current jobs is yet to be determined. After all, previous generations of robotic tech did mix of all three, depending on their relationship to construction operations.
“The opportunity for growth in robotics in construction is huge,” said Dan Kara, a robotics researcher at global technology business research firm ABI Research.
Learning from the past
Robotics in use in the field today is helping to pave the way for future builders by showing the technology's potential to aid productivity and eliminate rework.
Among the early examples are remotely controllable robotic total theodolite stations, which have been in use for more than a decade, said Carl Haas, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Waterloo, in Canada. By combining 3-D models with software, the total stations automatically scan sites and mark on the model where the metal sleeves, or embeds, should be placed.
“Trying to place embeds with non-automated surveying instruments and a paper plane was error-prone and time-consuming,” he said.
Automated grade-control systems like those from Trimble, Topcon, Caterpillar and others have also been in use for the past 10 years or so. They include a GPS external locating system and internal robotic controls programmed from a 3-D model. The robotic controls raise and lower arms and blades based on programmed instructions.
“It used to be [that] surveyors would go out and put out stakes and the earth movers would try to move dirt roughly to where drivers thought it should be moved. Then surveyors would check it out,” Haas said. “It slowed down the process and moved a lot of earth that didn’t need to be moved.”
For robotics to permeate construction, the industry needs to continue to outfit machines with sensors to gather and grant machine intelligence, according to Willy Schlacks, president of EquipmentShare. That information is being used to give machines the ability to transmit data, such as to notify owners when equipment is failing or needs maintenance and where it is located on the job site, he said.
EquipmentShare lets construction businesses rent under-used equipment to and from each other. The company recently expanded that platform with the launch of ES Track, a telematics system that allows contractors to gather data about their equipment in real-time, including whether it’s parked, being used on a job or rented out. Equipment owners can use that data to determine what to do with the equipment next in order to maximize its return on investment.
Telematics systems could one day work in conjunction with robotics, Schlacks said. For example, GPS and telematics information could be combined with job-site workflow data. If an area of the site is running low on a certain type of lumber, contractors could deliver the material from elsewhere on the site or bring in a new load from a nearby supplier — all before a work backup occurs.
In another scenario illustrating the potential for these technologies to work together, that lumber could be dispatched by way of an automated maintenance vehicle before workers even were aware that additional materials were needed. Or, robotically controlled drones could (safely) drop the lumber at a designated spot on the site.
From aerial to wearable
Robotically controlled, low-flying drones are already in use in construction. The drone’s on-board imaging and mapping software is used to capture an unprecedented bird’s-eye view of the site, Kara said, taking 2-D pictures that are used to generate a 3-D model.
Some drones today also have artificial intelligence capabilities, allowing them to recognize and track objects, like vehicles, on construction sites while on-board software lets crews on the ground immediately review the information. That means no more waiting to upload the data to the cloud and then again for analysis back at the office, Kara said.
Another robotic tool crews can expect to see more of is exoskeletons. Today, these wearable, powered or unpowered full-body or partial suits are used primarily in the medical field. Specific applications range from helping a wearer operate a paralyzed limb, for example, to assisting stroke victims move their arms and legs as they regain strength and range of motion.
In the construction industry, exoskeletons can augment human motion to enhance lifting strength or reduce strain and improve output for repetitive tasks like squatting, bending or walking, Kara said.
ABI Research forecasts the robotic exoskeleton market to reach $1.8 billion in 2025, compared to $68 million in 2014. This year, about 6,000 such suits will be sold, mainly for rehabilitation. By 2025, ABI expects to see about 2.6 million suits on the market. Those additional suits stand to expand the technology’s application in a number of fields, including construction.
One company expected to contribute to that figure is, SuitX, which serves the industrial and medical markets. It produces a separate exoskeleton system for each of the legs, back and shoulders, as well as a full-body version. So far, the company has shipped just 50 of the suits, with 80 ordered, said Homayoon Kazerooni, the company’s CEO and founder. Parker Hannifin, Cyberdyne and Rex Bionics join SuitX as companies that make these suits.
Although incoming robotic innovations challenge the status quo, they are already proving helpful in addressing challenges facing the industry, including safety, productivity, scheduling and on-time completion, Haas said.
Future robotic technology on the job site will likely have an eye toward fabrication.
One example is SAM100 (semi-automated mason), a robotic worker from Victor, NY–based Construction Robotics that can lay 3,000 bricks a day (a human can do about 500, Digital Trends reports). Tennessee-based masonry company Wasco used the bricklaying robot last year as part of its work on the Welch College campus in Gallatin, TN.
Meanwhile, Rob Technologies, in Zurich, Switzerland, has developed a mobile fabrication robotic arm that fits in a modified freight container. The Rob Unit runs autonomously on algorithms, and its actions and abilities include laying bricks with undulating walls, randomly protruding bricks and other nonstandard brick facades.
The Rob Unit was used to construct the Manchester City Community Wall, which marks the entrance to the club’s soccer academy in Manchester, England. It was also used to build an exhibition, titled “Explorations,” at the 11th Venice Architectural Biennale, held from 2007 to 2008, in Italy. The 328-foot-long brick wall wound its way through the Swiss pavilion.
While bricklayers like SAM, Rob Unit and Hadrian X have seen some use, they largely remain next-generation technologies, to be implemented more widely after they’ve proved themselves in the field. For now, however, their initial uses are offering a few ideas as to how such technology will one day be applied more generally.
Costs related to construction robotics will be lowered — like the path previously taken by the computing industry, Kara said — as uptake continues. So stay tuned for technology like exoskeletons on the ground, more drones overhead and even a bricklaying arm or two at construction sites in the future.