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The Robot Revolution is Coming to Construction

Articles Central Innovation 30 May 2017

The Robot Revolution is Coming to Construction

The age of robotics is no longer ‘just around the corner’ but right upon us and it’s bringing major change to industry, with the AEC sector no exception.

The ability of businesses to move quickly in capitalising upon the new opportunities offered by these rapidly evolving technologies is set to play a major role in their future success.

One fascinating example is the inclusion of robotic solutions within custom-built housing. Who would have imagined high-tech apartment kitchens with built-in robotic chefs? Moley Robotics has, creating a kitchen module which includes a stovetop, sink, utensils and a pair of articulated robotic arms programmed to prepare recipes.

The arms have been designed to replicate human body movements and can bend in all the right places – fingers, wrist, elbow and shoulder. The robot’s stored repository of movements have been based on those of British Masterchef winner Tim Anderson, with his cooking motions mapped in 3D then translated into algorithms which enable the robot cook to replicate them.

The prototype was showcased at Hannover Messe industrial robotics trade fair in 2015, with the commercial version likely to be marketed as part of the interior fitout for high end, urban apartment dwelling. The manufacturer is now talking about adding a refrigerator and dishwasher to the module … taking us further down the path to a fully automated kitchen where robots can do everything from taking the ingredients out of the fridge, to preparing and serving the meal and even stacking the dirty plates for automated cleaning.

So what once sounded like science fiction (or at least an episode of The Jetsons) is set to become reality for apartment and home dwellers. On the other side of the coin, the construction sector itself is undergoing something of a robot revolution – with specialised robots already being created for a wide variety of applications, from bricklaying (Fastbrick Robotics’ Hadrian X prototype can lay a thousand bricks an hour and build an entire house in two days) to layout robots or ‘laybots’ which utilise CAD and BIM data to perform measurement and layout operations on construction sites.

Last year Komatsu unveiled the US version of its ‘Smart Construction’ automated equipment service, part of its Intelligent Machine Control (IMC) program, whose innovations include autonomous, remote controlled construction equipment including bulldozers and semi-automatic excavators ‘driven’ by remote control via GPS/GNSS technology (the latter standing for Global Navigation Satellite System).

Of all the recent innovations in robotics, drones have probably received the most widespread publicity, and certainly the ability to rig them up with high-resolution cameras and scanning technology makes them ideal for data gathering as well as other possible applications within the construction sector. The obvious ones include aerial inspections (not just to obtain visual data – for example when fitted with infra-red filters and sensors they can detect gas leaks invisible to the naked eye) and entering otherwise inaccessible areas.

Drones are already being used by solar panel installers to inspect roofing and ceiling spaces, and further refinements to the technology, such as Quad Copter propellers to provide greater stability of movement, will enable the drones to obtain BIM data of existing structures which would then be used to create 3D models.

The likely next step is the alliance of robotics with Artificial Intelligence (AI) – most robots currently do not ‘think’, but as AI techniques are used to make the next generation of robots more autonomous, this will serve to widen their applications within the construction sector. At the outset there is strong potential for AI to impact architectural surveying and construction analysis methodologies, as well as further refining BIM predictive clash prevention.

But as with most of the applications of emerging technologies, the majority of these simply haven’t been conceptualised yet. They are still to come – as the future becomes the present, and as further evolution and adaptation takes place. What’s important is to stay alert to the potential of the technologies on offer and pro-active in taking advantage of opportunities once identified.


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