Recent international news highlights the increasing global interest in construction robotics. Skanska UK snagged a grant from the UK government to develop robots for onsite and offsite construction activities. Going a step farther, MX3D, a 3D printing and robotics company, set plans in motion to marry robotics with 3D printing by printing a bridge over a canal in the Netherlands.
In another example of blending construction robotics with concepts from 3D printing, an Australian company is launching the commercial version of its brick-laying machine next year. Called Hadrian, after Hadrian’s Wall, the machine can lay 1,000 bricks an hour following 3D CAD information about the structure.
U.S. Robotics Scene
Closer to home, a new non-motorized exoskeleton for construction and industrial workers will hit the market in 2016. This exoskeleton is designed to reduce fatigue and injuries by removing the weight of holding heavy tools while still giving the worker full flexibility. A similar product already available from Lockheed Martin is expected to find its first home in Navy shipyards to help take the load and lift the fatigue from workers using riveters, grinders, sandblasters, and drills.
As in other countries, efforts in the U.S. are also focused on taking the back-breaking aspects out of masonry work. Construction Robotic’s Semi-Automated Masonry system, works with masons by lifting and placing each brick. The company claims this provides savings of 30%, allows the masons to focus on tooling joints and quality, and reduces health risks. There’s also a bonus of greater consistency in production and performance.
Other construction robotics that approach different construction tasks to make them less tiring and more productive include:
A mobile drilling robot that precisely drills overhead holes in concrete ceilings
A robotic fabrication system that makes custom mosaic tiles
Demolition robots that scan, plan, and breakdown buildings all by themselves
Developed nations with their level of declining populations and aging workforces are encouraging robotics development. The Japanese government is promoting robots through a national robot strategy with a goal of pushing the size of the robotics market to about $19.6 billion by 2020. The U.S. National Robotics Initiative of the National Science Foundation has the stated goal “to accelerate the development and use of robots in the United States that work beside or cooperatively with people.” To that end, the agency, in partnership with the National Institute of Health, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and NASA, announced $31.5 million of funding to help boost co-robot development. Co-robots are those that work cooperatively with humans. This is the third round of funding that’s been released.
Over three years, hundreds of research and development efforts have been funded, including many that are important for construction robotics. Much effort focuses on improving the way robots and people communicate with each other. But there’s also a strong focus on enabling robots to work alongside humans. Others focus on the way mechanics and electronics can help make physical work safer and less damaging to the body over the long term.
One effort underway at the University of California Berkeley is defining exoskeleton design criterion that will help reduce the musculoskeletal forces and oxygen consumption of people doing various labor-intensive tasks. The idea is to reduce the severity and number of work-related injuries.
Robots for Welding
Researchers at the University of Kentucky Research Foundation are developing ways for human welders to work with welding robots so the robots can weld better when work pieces and environments vary. A skilled welder views the work area remotely in 3D, as if they are right where the robot is. The human can adjust the welding parameters while the robot executes them with high precision. Ultimately, the robot will learn by example and later adjust to similar conditions on its own.
At Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station, researchers are building a robotic system that will inspect and repair bridges. That includes a robotic inspection and diagnostic system, robotic repair and maintenance, human interaction to minimize traffic interference, and evaluation and performance criteria.
University of Delaware researchers are trying to solve the puzzle of balancing work loads between humans and robots. The research should yield a robotic co-worker that bears much of the weight for its human partner when the two are carrying a load. It sounds simple on the surface, but has deeper requirements. The human shouldn’t have to use a lot of communication and shouldn’t have to train the robot beforehand.
While much of the robotic research today centers on medical and manufacturing uses, it’s very possible those advancements will support construction robotics as well. Robotics are also set to team up with other technologies such ash 3D printing. Blending robots with modular construction, WiFi equipped devices, and drones will further blur the lines among the technologies posed to affect the industry. However, the benefits of robotics will only come when they can handle the rigors of construction sites without adding needless risks.