The Future Is Here: Robots, Drones and the Construction Industry

The following is a guest post by construction industry blogger James White.

Picture stepping onto an active job site. You’re greeted not by a Project Superintendent, but rather something that resembles R2D2. While today’s construction industry may not be in a galaxy far, far away, drones and robotic technologies are becoming a part of everyday operations.

In 2013, the U.S. Census Bureau valued the U.S. Construction market at nearly $899 billion. Factor into the equation the growing number of competitors entering the market place and the diminishing number of opportunities to build on undeveloped land —  it’s easy to see why there has been such an incentive for construction firms to turn towards innovative solutions.

Yes, These Are the Drones You’re Looking For

With the ability to soar stories above the job site or weave between I-beams, drones have recently become a popular trend on job sites. Equipped with a high-resolution camera, drones have the advantage of capturing images and/or videos that previously would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible to take.

And they’re not just capturing pictures and videos. Drones can be used to:

  • identify safety hazards
  • act as a communicator between field personnel
  • map out future development opportunities

Project owners are usually big proponents of using drones on their job sites because the images captured can be utilized for future development planning, marketing/sales efforts, and expansion opportunities.

But what about other applications? Will drones start building for us? Swiss firm Gramazio & Kohler seems to think so, as they recently used a team of 50 flying drones to build a structurally stable, six-foot tower comprised of 1,5000 Styrofoam blocks. Programming in a specific set of algorithms, Gramazio & Kohler was able to control their drones to not only avoid collisions, but to determine best-case paths for fast pickup and release.

Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto

As drones lead the way to the technological revolution, other opportunities are beginning to emerge for robotics. Robotic systems are ideal for areas where monotonous tasks are required and where human error can drastically impact the end product.

In Japan, welding time on job sites has drastically decreased thanks to the inclusion of robotic welding systems. The process includes pre-cutting and welding I-beams before delivery and drilling electrical and plumbing system holes (within 0.16mm). Robots are attaching unique identifiers to each beam, ensuring that the beams are allocated to the correct job site. This process decreases the amount of time needed to erect steel on-site, which has allowed for more time to be spent focusing on other areas of manufacturing.

Basing their concept on the building habits of termites, researchers at Harvard University engineering school have developed a group of robots that mimic the characteristics that enable termites to build towering hills, hundreds of times their size. The robots, 4.7” in height and 4×7” wide, are controlled by a series of algorithms. Much like their termite ancestors, these robots are programmed to coordinate indirectly, reacting to their environment instead of one another.

Each robot is tasked with picking up a “brick” (an 8.5 x 8.5 x 2” square of urethane foam), carrying it to the site, and then laying it down on top of other existing bricks to create a staircase. While this sequence is underway, the robots are only able to sense bricks and other robots in their vicinity. They don’t have the ability to visualize the structure as a whole, or identify robots at a distance. If another robot were to break down or malfunction, it would have no effect on the other active robots — their sequence would alter for the change in the environment, but would still carry out the task at hand.

Proposed practical applications for these kinds of systems include underwater construction, or emergency planning such as laying sandbags down before a hurricane or tropical storm.

The Impact on Safety

When discussing the role robotics will play in the future of construction, safety is the top priority. According to OSHA, 4,405 workers were killed on the job in 2013. The leading cause? Falls. The top three? Struck by object, electrocution, and caught-in/between.

With robotic integration, workers could remove themselves from high-risk situations. For example, drones could weave between tight corners, robotic systems could bend handle electrical wires, and “worker ant” robots could carry materials between job sites.

While these scenarios may still be a long way from reality, future possibilities for drones and robots seem to be limitless. In research laboratories and factories across the globe, the future of the construction industry is being molded, and the question doesn’t seem to be “What If?” but rather, “Why Not?”

BIO: *James White is an experienced home improvement blogger and construction worker. His writing has appeared in many publications, including True Look, Constructonomics and The Blok. James is involved in promoting the ideas of sustainable building and construction safety. And, when he’s not saving the planet through his blogging, James revels in exploring the latest developments in construction and manufacturing industries, its history, its advancements, and where we will be tomorrow.*

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