Robotics will play a vital role in shaping the construction industry of the 21st century. It’s time to get acquainted.
For the most part, popular culture gives the world of robotics a pretty bad wrap. In books and film, the things designed to help us too often end up being painted as the things that end up killing us – as shown by films such as Terminator (1984), I, Robot (2004), or Alien: Covenant (2017).
In reality, artificial intelligence (AI) is far from confirming humanity’s demise. In actual fact, it’s around us every day, to varying degrees. There’s voice-command in most smartphones, cars and home devices, while these devices are manufactured in part by robots. Of course, in an age of technological disruption, all industries will be fundamentally altered by the promises and consequences of AI progress. Construction is no different; not immune to the changes automation will bring about.
A joint 2016 report from Construction Skills Queensland and the CSIRO speculated that software, robots and a concurrent up-skilling of the construction workforce may occur by 2036. Indeed, as with a lot of other Australian industries, automation doesn’t seem to be a job-taker, but one that frees up more people to participate in higher-skilled, less labour-intensive work. So rather than robots in Hollywood, chances are they’re more likely to appear on construction sites around the country. Here is a snapshot of some of construction-orientated robots.
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1. The Fastbrick Robot
It’s all in the name really. The Fastbrick Robot is a one-armed machine that does what is says on the box: It lays a brick home in “anywhere from 1-3 days”, dependent on the type of brick and overall design of the house. This equates to about 1000 standard bricks laid per hour. The trick to this is 3D modelling - the machine prints the structure (or builds the structure) over the course of the site, meaning no humans are a part of the loading, cutting and laying process. While this technology has a great potential to add to construction efficiencies, it also opens the door to bespoke customisation, with complex bricklaying patterns undertaken with the speedy millimeter precision of a robot. Architects Gramazio and Kohler Research of the ETH in Zurich have been exploring the possibilities of robotic bricklaying for some years.
2. 3D Printing
While 3D printing has been around for some years, with smaller applications (such as printing 3D models of yourself), 3D printing hasn’t exactly started reshaping our cities until now. Researchers from Imperial College London have collaborated with a firm called MX3D to print the world’s largest 3D printed metal structure, the Oudezijds Achterburgwal canal bridge in Amsterdam. This follows on from the world’s first printed 3D bicycle bridge opening in, where else but, the Netherlands.
3. The Exosuit
Harvard University’s Exosuit are described as “soft wearable robots” that allow a wearer to augment their physical capabilities. The applications for construction here are obvious: more concrete, bricks and other materials could be carried to site, augmenting the speed of a build. As opposed to similar prototypes, Harvard’s suit aims to aid someone’s mobility closer to their lived experience – essentially getting suits to “sync” with our natural movement better. And like all things now, an algorithm determines the best way to do this, based off of the energy it ascertains we use to make certain movements. As we age, the intensity of our movement might lessen and that’s where these suits come into play, perfect for an ageing workforce like Australia’s.
4. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
More colloquially known as drones, UAVs present a multitude of possibilities for assisting construction. They are used for surveying, data collection and data synthesis. What’s more, they can provide all hours surveillance and site security. Following their early research in robotic brick construction, Austrian architects Gramazio & Kohler Architects have experimented with flight assembled architecture. They have used UAVs to physically construct buildings. The FRAC Centre Orléans (2011 - 2012) was constructed by drones that laid one brick at a time according to mathematical algorithms.
5. Virtual reality
Virtual reality is emerging as a multifaceted help tool. Education-wise, it would allow construction workers to get familiar with new sites or train for new roles. Virtual reality headgear can improve site safety by drawing the wearer’s attention to hazards and unexpected variations. The Daqri Helmet also allows site managers to view the site from a worker’s point of view, enabling better communication among construction teams and faster problem-solving. VR can be used to remotely operate drone robots for surveying purposes.