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Robotics Roadmap Lays Out Future for Construction


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Australia’s first Robotics Roadmap launched this month, laying out a vision of how the new technologies might help sectors, such as construction, manufacturing, agriculture and service industries, evolve to meet the future.

Developed by the world-leading Australian Centre for Robotic Vision, it is the result of consultation with industry, government, and academics. What needed to be analysed is on where we are now in terms of innovation in robotics and what steps are needed to realise its potential.

“Australia’s Robotics Roadmap is a critical step towards a national strategy to invest in robotic technology to create and support a vibrant economy, community, and nation,” says the Centre’s Chief Operating Officer, Dr Sue Keay.

Future Problem Solvers

Dr Keay says that due to our ageing population, labour productivity will not be sufficient, and we will have to rely on automation to achieve the productivity gains needed to support a continued high standard of living.

“Automation is predicted to deliver Australia a $2.2 trillion dividend over the next 15 years if we encourage businesses to accelerate their uptake of new technologies, such as robotics,” she says.

There are two sectors in the roadmap with direct influence on the building business—manufacturing and construction as a service.

Manufacturing is already one of the industries where the use of automation, machine learning and robotics is high, as are materials and goods handling and mining. In manufacturing for design and assembly, one of the pre-fabricated building approaches, the use of automation and CNC machines is already established.

The roadmap noted there are more opportunities to be explored as construction and manufacturing converge.

These technologies offer the potential for real gains can be made when it comes to innovative solutions, improved safety and risk reduction.

The roadmap identified four key robotic technologies for the on-site construction as a service sector: reliable mobile 3D perception (Robotic Vision); RegTech—Regulation Technology; robust cognition including people tracking; and vision for other safety-related tasks.

One of the collaborators on the roadmap, UTS Adjunct Professor and Future Robotics Lead for Laing O’Rourke’s Engineering Excellence Group, Dr Nathan Kirchner tells Jobsite about the importance of distinguishing between the two different types of robotics.

Industrial robotics includes the type of technology found in manufacturing. According to Dr Kirchner, these robots are “established and ubiquitous.” One of the first was a palletisation robot introduced by Fujitsu in the early 1960s—a good 50 years ago!

These robots can be as simple as a machine that lives in a factory and follows instructions. However, there are also mobile robotic units, such as the Fastbricks Robotics’ bricklaying robot.

The Engineering Excellence Group is exploring a robotic system with sensing and perception capabilities that can see, assess, interpret and identify potential issues, such as the need for rework or potential safety incidents. The group is in the early stages of bringing the technology into use in the company’s Austrak rail sector manufacturing facility.

The other type of robots is field robots, he says. These technologies offer the potential for real gains can be made when it comes to innovative solutions, improved safety and risk reduction.

“The future is field robotics,” Dr Kirchner says.

These are robots that are capable of generating situational awareness for themselves, mixing that input with prior knowledge and then implementing a course of action as a result. A fairly well-known example would be an automated vehicle.

Robot as Life Saver

One of the robotics case studies in the roadmap was Toolbox Spotter, developed by the Engineering Excellence Group. This hand tool is a robotic automated vision system that can independently identify when people are within a danger zone, a space near heavy equipment or other risks, and alert the appropriate personnel.

Dr Kirchner says the technology has shown it can work in the real world and proves its value the minute it saves even one life. Already there is interest in implementing it from other companies in the sector.

“It is significant,” he says. “It is actually happening.”

Another example of robotics in action was Laing O’Rourke’s recent use of automated heavy load carriers, SPMT (self-propelled modular transport), as part of a challenging bridge construction project for the Darlington Upgrade in South Australia.

The Gateway South consortium comprising Laing O’Rourke and Fulton Hogan, constructed the 3,000-tonne, 180-metre long bridge at ground level on vacant land near the site. Then, in just one day, it moved the bridge into place using the SPMTs.

Dr Kirchner says that essentially nothing changed about the process of building the bridge; except it was done out of the way of the public, and it was a “better way to do the hard bit” of putting it in place.

The end result was also the client got a better product, and the project experienced a substantial cost saving in terms of time spent on the task.

The end result was also the client got a better product, and the project experienced a substantial cost saving in terms of time spent on the task.

“The technology helped us do it, and we will get similar jobs in future because it shows it can be done.”

Essentially, the innovation has created more work for the company and its people.

“The long game of modularisation will bring out all of these devices,” says Dr Kirchner. Eventually, as the number of devices grows, they can be connected as a “device mesh,” similar to the Internet of Things.

And, the more exposure the technologies get, the better it will be for the industry, he says.

Boosting Human Abilities

What has to be kept in mind, however, is that developing and implementing robotics is about doing things better—not about reducing human worker involvement.

Dr Kirchner says that if, for example, someone makes a widget and takes it to a factory, and the widget will result in everyone being displaced—it will not gain general acceptance. The opposite will happen, however, if the tech makes their jobs easier, safer, better and more productive.

Robotics is about being a “capability catalyst” and the augmentation of human abilities.

Unlike traditional robotics, which was “about removing people,” the new robotics is about recognising people are already capable. The technologies can simply make them more even capable.

The robots were able to autonomously sense and map a steel structure and then plan a suitable collision-free, grit-blasting pathway.

The safety dividends can also be substantial by changing the task flow so that some risks do not occur, Dr Kirchner says.

In one approach, robotics can remove the worker from the site of most risk, for example, by using a tele-operated robot so the worker can be some distance away. This is the principle behind the mobile robots used for bomb detection and other threat situations by some Defence forces.

It is also the principle behind robots like Sabre Autonomous Solutions’ autonomous high-pressure blasting cleaning robots. The units were invented by University of Technology Sydney researchers in a partnership with the New South Wales (NSW) Government’s Roads and Maritime Services agency.

The agency had approached UTS in 2006 to find a safer way of undertaking routine grit-blasting in the steel girders of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

By 2013, the research team had developed a lightweight robot, and two fully operational prototype grit-blasting robots were at work and were being tested on the Harbour Bridge.

The robots were able to autonomously sense and map a steel structure and then plan a suitable collision-free, grit-blasting pathway. They were fast, accurate and, most importantly, reduced workers’ exposure to the dangerous blasting zone environment.

UTS established Sabre Autonomous Solutions to commercialise the technology, and it is now being used for applications, including blast cleaning, in confined spaces as well as bridge maintenance.

"This roadmap shows just how quickly this field is moving, and the rewards available to a robot-ready Australia.”

At the launch of the Roadmap, Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel emphasised the importance of the roadmap in unlocking Australia’s robotics potential.

“When I was a child, robots were the realm of science fiction alone. Even through the decades that followed, simple automation and machines failed to fill the grand promises made by my favourite books,” Dr Finkel said.

“But in the last few years, that’s all changed—robots and artificial intelligence are appearing in every industry sector, with huge practical impact on the way we live, work, and plan for the future. This roadmap shows just how quickly this field is moving, and the rewards available to a robot-ready Australia.”

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