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One of the biggest industries in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is construction. According to reports, almost a quarter of the world’s cranes are deployed on jobs scattered throughout Dubai. The desert metropolis is home to the world’s tallest buildings, including the 160-story Burj Khalifa.
The majority of construction workers in the Middle Eastern capital are immigrant workers lured from their home countries by large cash payouts. Globally, the building industry has suffered from a labor shortage for years. Pre-pandemic reports estimated close to a half million construction jobs in the United States remained unfilled.
To compound matters, job sites are dangerous. In Dubai alone, close to 1,000 people have died this past decade building its 148 skyscrapers. These factors make real estate development ripe for disruption, with the most promising innovations focused on augmenting skilled labor with construction robotics.
Construction robotics opportunity
I recently discussed the construction robotics opportunity for Israeli roboticists with Noam Rotem, founder and CEO of Syracuse, an autonomous crane technology startup. Rotem summed up the opportunity for Israeli entrepreneurs in light of the new cooperation agreement between the UAE, Bahrain, and Israel. “I think the big advantage of the UAE is not just the total number (of cranes), but the density and their general willingness to adopt innovative tech,” he said.
He shared with me that, like Dubai, Tel Aviv’s streets are littered with cranes, “Israel is very small with the majority of its population concentrated in essentially one large urban metropolis,” he said. “This makes construction sites common, and the skyline cluttered with tower cranes erecting high-rise buildings.” He continued, “Observing tower cranes, I could see that they were being operated very inefficiently – crane movement was hindered by human limitation to plot complex trajectories.”
This is what led him to completely rethink how the equipment operates, essentially building an “autonomous system capable of generating the optimal load trajectory, dramatically reducing load transport time, and improving crane efficiency.”
Rotem explained how “Syracuse converts existing tower cranes into giant industrial robots.” To accomplish this, Syracuse installs its hardware system directly on the crane “to continually monitor the position of the crane, the position and dimensions of the load, and all obstacles in the construction site.” Then the signal person on the ground uses a handheld device, or a 3D model, to move the machine to the precise spot.
“Our system enables Level 3 autonomy, keeping the human operator as a supervisor; and the standard controls available for edge cases. In the future, Syracuse will operate the crane fully autonomously,” Rotem said.
His technology has been gaining traction. “During the last few months, we have been operating a commercial Potain Tower Crane autonomously in a logistical center, alongside human-operated tower cranes. The crane was provided by our investor, Skyline, the largest crane rental company in Israel, with over 200 tower cranes.”
He further outlined expansion opportunities for his product. “Syracuse is initially focused on tower cranes and the construction industry, however, the core technology is suitable for autonomous operation of all types of cranes, and will be deployed in the future to mobile cranes, ship-to-shore container cranes, and industrial gantry cranes,” Rotem said.
The team is currently focused on expanding its commercial deployment schedules throughout Israel. “By the end of 2021, we will launch our first commercial system, providing human-operated tower cranes with advanced collision-awareness capabilities to improve safety by alerting the operator of pending obstacles, stopping or diverting the crane if required. Further upgrades during 2021 will allow us to introduce a fully autonomous level 3 solution by the end of 2022,” stated Rotem.
Another Israeli startup, Versatile, last week secured $20 million in Series A financing from Insight Ventures. The company uses computer vision to provide a bird’s-eye view of the job site and crane operations, increasing safety and efficiency. “You can only improve what you can measure, and at Versatile we are just scratching the surface of what we can do to create value for our users and use data to turn job sites into controlled manufacturing with fast feedback loops,” said Versatile CEO Meirav Oren.
Automating interior construction
In validating the wider construction robotics opportunity, I reached out to Israeli entrepreneur Guy German. Unlike Rotem, which is focused on vertical job sites, German’s startup, Okibo, is automating interior construction. I nudged him for his thoughts on the new accords. “UAE investors understand the value of robotics and automation and gain experience.” He stressed the close proximity is a real asset for the relationship,
“Usually, Israeli startups tend to offer their developments to European and US markets. Now there is a new market three hours away from Israel with massive demand for construction tech solutions. In addition, the royal families hold real estate assets that can serve as a base for pilots, test cases and future clients.”
German, who built his robot to fabricate swimming pools, is now poised to take over the interior space with a mobile device capable of taping, plastering, and painting at a touch of a button. “Automation increases efficiency, safety, quality of work, visibility, availability of workforce, consistency and schedule predictability. The industrialization of the construction industry is inevitable,” suggested Okibo’s Chief Executive.
He further outlined the ease of his solution. “Our robot is fully autonomous (scanning/modeling/path planning/execution) – it does not require a lot of training or understanding in robotics or plastering/painting. The operator, which can be anyone in the site, is basically required to fill in materials, make sure that batteries are charged, take obstacles out of the way of the robot and clean the airless spray machine at the end of the day. Although it is possible to change the robot’s plan and control it as a ‘semi-autonomous power tool’ in most cases it is not required.”
German’s innovation is already making great strides. “We are currently working with our robots as a full turnkey subcontractor. The robot is performing drywall finish tasks fully autonomously and, as far as we know, we are the only company in the world (there are several other groups working on this task) that has demonstrated a robot that can paint a full room (4 walls) fully autonomously, continuously, no human intervention, no prior programing and no prior data provided to the robot about the job.” He predicts that in less than 24 months, Okibo “will have a product in the market that will change the way drywall finishing is performed for good.”
I pushed the entrepreneurs with their thoughts about how the construction industry will be impacted long-term by the pandemic. “COVID-19, much like the 2008 slowdown, is expected to see many older more experienced workers retire and the younger workers transfer to other industries,” Rotem said. “That and the fact that most people don’t want to spend 12 hours or more in a small cab 500 feet above the ground means the construction industry is looking for solutions for crane operator shortages.”
He admitted the “industry isn’t ready yet to replace the human operator with a fully self-operating system, but companies are looking for new technologies to increase automation and efficiency and take the active operating duties from the human operator, eventually evolving into full autonomy.”
German was more optimistic about construction robotics. “The increasing shortage of professional labor in the construction industry is the main driver of introducing smart automation … It is important to mention that we do not believe that automation in the construction industry will displace even a single person out of his or her job,” he said. “It will help fill part of the labor shortage and improve a team’s efficiency, productivity and quality of work. This will help get more projects to meet their schedule and increase the overall market capacity. In fact, we expect that this revolution will create more jobs to this industry and help connect the younger generation to the field.”