Until recently, construction was one of the least digitized and automated industries in the world. Many projects could be completed more efficiently with the help of the right construction robotics, mainly because the related tasks are incredibly repetitive.
While manual labor will likely always be a huge component of modern construction, technology has been steadily improving since the first pulleys and power tools. Robots, drones, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, and exoskeletons are beginning to help get the work done. With low U.S. unemployment and shortages of skilled labor, automation is key to meeting demand and continued economic growth.
“Construction robots may be involved in specific tasks, such as bricklaying, painting, loading, and bulldozing. We expect hundreds of AMRs in the next two years, mainly doing haulage,” said Rian Whitton, an analyst at ABI Research. “These robots help to protect workers from a hazardous working environment, reduce workplace injuries, and address labor shortages.”
Many potential solutions rely on artificial intelligence and machine learning to deliver unprecedented levels of data-driven support. For instance, a driverless crane could transport materials around a worksite, or an aerial drone could gather information on a worksite to be compared against the plan.
Here are just a few examples of how robotics is transforming construction.
1. Construction robotics can build walls
An example of how construction robotics are revolutionizing the industry can be seen in the HadrianX bricklaying machine from Australia-based FBR Ltd. (also known as Fastbrick Robotics). It employs an intelligent control system — aided by CAD — to calculate the necessary materials and movements for bricklaying.
Hadrian also measures environmental changes, such as movement caused by wind or vibrations, in real time. This data is then used to improve precision during the building process.
While Hadrian does require the use of proprietary blocks and adhesive, FBR noted that the related materials are “12 times bigger than standard house bricks” and are lighter, stronger, and more environmentally sustainable.
Robots like Hadrian and SAM100 from Victor, N.Y.-based Construction Robotics promise to reduce operating costs and waste, as well as provide safer work environments and improve productivity. Hadrian can build the walls of a house in a single day, which is much faster than conventional methods.
2. Autonomous equipment doesn’t need an operator
While the major automakers and technology companies are working on self-driving cars, autonomous vehicles are already part of construction robotics.
Such equipment can transport supplies and materials. For instance, Volvo has been working on its HX2, an autonomous and electric load carrier that can move heavy loads without additional input. It has no driver cab and instead uses a digital logistics-driven control technology backed by what Volvo calls a “vision system” to detect humans and obstacles while on the move.
Another company, Built Robotics, which last month raised $33 million, offers autonomous bulldozers and excavators. AI guidance systems direct the equipment to their destinations and ensure that the necessary work is completed safely and accurately.
Autonomous vehicles and construction robotics is not intended to replace manual labor entirely, but to augment and enhance efficiency. Safety is vastly improved as well, as we eliminate the potential for human error.
3. Smart robots employ imaging technology
Construction robotics and drones using sensors such as lidar with Global Positioning System technologies can provide vital information about a worksite. Along with AI, it can help predict what tasks are required.
Doxel Inc. makes a small tread-based robot that does exactly that. It scans and assesses the progress of a construction project by traversing the site. The information it collects is used to detect potential errors and problems early.
Doxel’s data is stored in the cloud, where it’s filtered through a deep-learning algorithm to recognize and assess more minute details. For example, the system might point out that a ventilation duct is installed incorrectly, and the early detection can allow for the proper correction well before costly revisions are needed.
4. Operate construction robotics remotely
Humans are still in the loop for much of construction robotics, combining the strengths of human supervision with multiple technologies. The Internet of Things, additive manufacturing, and digitization are contributing to the industry’s growth, noted Caterpillar.
Painting drones are an excellent example, since they can be controlled via tablet or smartphone via an app, and they can report on the data they gather that’s analyzed in the cloud.
Remote-control technology can also be applied to semi-autonomous vehicles. Project managers can use it to deliver instructions and orders to their workforce instantly.
Barcelona-based Scaled Robotics offers construction robotics that can be remotely controlled by mobile devices. The company’s Husky unmanned ground vehicle can roam a construction site and capture critical information via multiple sensors. The data is transferred to the cloud, where it’s used for building information modeling (BIM) of the project.
5. Conduct surveillance, surveying, and inspection
Before, during, and after a construction project, many assessments require the review of a worksite and surrounding area. Limited surveillance is also necessary for supervising workers and securing the site. In addition, project managers and supervisors must walk the site to conduct final inspections. Construction robotics and drones can help all of these processes.
Aerial drones and ground-based robots can survey a worksite and gather multiple types of data, depending on the sensors used. Augmented reality and virtual reality can enable operators to get a realistic and real-time feel for what the drones are seeing.
While donning a VR headset, for instance, viewers can see a live feed of captured video from the drone. More importantly, that immersive experience is provided remotely, so project managers don’t even have to be on the job site to get an accurate assessment. The video feed is also recorded for playback at a later time, providing yet another resource.
Companies are already using drone technology to this end. In 2018, Chinese drone maker DJI announced a global partnership with Skycatch for a fleet of 1,000 high-precision custom drones to create 3D site maps and models of project sites.
Automation is the future of construction
The global market for construction robotics also represents a huge opportunity for developers and suppliers. It could grow from $22.7 million in 2018 to $226 million by 2025, predicts Tractica. Research and Markets estimates that the market will grow to $126.4 million by 2025.
According to the International Federation of Robotics and the Robotic Industries Association, the construction robotics market will experience a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.7% between 2018 and 2022. Research firm IDC is more bullish, predicting a CAGR of 20.2%.
Automation and digitization are driving a revolution in the construction industry, which has historically been slow to adopt new technologies. From design through final inspection and maintenance, the full benefits of construction robotics have yet to be realized.