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The Construction Robots are Coming

The B1M | 5:47

The Construction Robots are Coming

Dan Cortese

29 May 2018

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Video hosted by Fred Mills.

RAPID developments in robotics and artificial intelligence are ushering in a new age that could change profoundly change the way we live. 

From smart houses to self-driving cars, the applications of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics are virtually limitless.

The construction industry is by no means immune to these developments. It’s an incredibly exciting time for our sector as numerous pioneers and research teams develop robot technology to take over dangerous or highly repetitive tasks improving quality, productivity and efficiency.

Here, we delve into the roles that robots are starting to play in construction and look at how they will affect our industry in the future.

WHAT MAKES A ROBOT?

While all robots are machines, not all machines are robots. Ultimately what sets a robot apart from a machine is its ability to be programmed to carry out complex tasks and to operate on, at the very least, a semi-autonomous level.

Above: While it looks robotic, exoskeletons are human controlled and therefore are not robots (image courtesy of Esko Bionics).

While a worker lifting a heavy load with an exoskeleton might appear robotic, the process is still controlled and operated by the worker.

The same can be said for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones. Though they are able to carry out a series of tasks, at present, most commercially available drones are controlled remotely and are unable to perform those tasks without human interaction.

ROBOTIC ARMS

Arguably the most prevalent type of construction robot at the moment is the mechanical arm.

While stationary versions of these robots have been in operation in factories and on manufacturing assembly lines for years, portable adaptations are now being developed for use in all manner of tasks on construction sites.

Able to be programmed to perform a range of repetitive and labour intensive activities - such as moving materials, tying rebar, building masonry walls and even 3D printing structures - these robots are set to have a huge impact on the industry reducing accidents and greatly increasing productivity.

One particularly prominent example is Odico Formwork Robotics who have developed a robot that uses “hot wire cutting” to develop complex double curved concrete moulds. Traditionally this time consuming and costly process was used sparingly in construction.

Above: Complex moulds can now be cut using robotic arms (image courtesy of Odico Formwork Robotics). 

Now, these robots can be programmed to create intricate formwork moulds with a higher degree of accuracy than a human worker and in a fraction of the time, unlocking complex designs and helping to make them a reality.

This particular robot looks set to work on Zaha Hadid Architects’ “Lushan Primary School” project in China.

Meanwhile in bricklaying, SAM 100 - developed by Construction Robotics - claims to be the world’s first commercially available robot for on site masonry construction.

There’s also Hadrian X developed by Fast Brick Robotics that can 3D print and lay bricks, completing the superstructure of a conventional masonry home in just two days.

Above: SAM 100 is said to be the world’s first commercially available robot for on site masonry construction (image courtesy of Construction Robotics).  Below: Hadrian X can 3D print and lay bricks according to programmed designs (image courtesy of Fastbirck Robotics).

In the world of steel reinforcement, “Tybot” developed by Advanced Construction Robotics, has been trialled tying rebar on a bridge project in Pennsylvania, one of the first examples of a robot undertaking an activity on a live construction site.

Above: Used on a bridge in Pennsylvania, "Tybot" was one of the first robots to be trialled on a live construction site (image courtesy of Advanced Construction Robotics).

There are also rapid developments coming out of ETH Zurich National Centre for Competence in Research (NCCR) Digital Fabrication in Switzerland.

Researchers here have developed in-situ fabricators that can construct masonry walls, erect steel reinforcement structures and even assemble timber frame buildings.

ROVERS

Robots are also entering the construction industry in the form of autonomous rovers equipped with high definition cameras and sensors that allow them to navigate their way around sites.

Able to identify and avoid obstacles, robots such as “EffiBOT” - developed by French robotics firm Effidence - can follow workers, carrying tools and materials.

Above: Able to carry heavy loads, "Effibot" can follow a worker around the building site autonomously (image courtesy of Effidence). 

Doxel is a rover that uses high definition cameras and “Light Imaging, Detection and Ranging” (LIDAR) sensors to carry out building site inspections, comparing progress with design models and programmes.

Above: Site inspections can be now carried out by autonomous rovers (image courtesy of Doxel).

AUTONOMOUS VEHICLES

Taking things up a gear, complete autonomous vehicles and plant are able to transport materials or undertake specific tasks in accordance with design models.

Activities like excavation or grading can be carried out around the clock without the need for breaks, greatly enhancing efficiency and reducing costs.

Prominent examples include Volvos’ HX-01 dumper and an autonomous dozer developed by Built Robotics.

Above: Volvo have developed HX-01 to autonomously transport loads around site (image courtesy of Volvo). Below: Built Robotics' dozer can theoretically carry out earthworks around the clock (image courtesy of Built Robotics).

While we are only just beginning to see the start of what robotics could do for the construction industry, there are already more advanced robots in development that could one day replace humans in certain industries and job roles altogether.

Whilst this might sound daunting, the rise of robotics, and indeed artificial intelligence, is likely to lead to the creation of new job roles and opportunities that we haven’t yet envisaged.

Watch more in our construction robotics series.

Images courtesy of Moley Robotics, Viki Knows, Waymo, Sarcos, Odico Formwork Robotics, Hal Robotics Ltd, Ekso Bionics, DJI, The University of Nantes, ZHA, Construction Robotics, Fastbrick Robotics, Advanced Construction Robotics, NCCR Digital Fabrication, Effidence, Doxel, Built Robotics, Volvo Construction and Boston Dynamics.

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