As part of my multi-part series where we look at the state of construction technology, I want to start by talking about robotics in construction.
In the movie’s, robots are often depicted as metallic humanoids that can walk and talk just like people. The reality is that real robots that are purpose-built to perform a specific task tend to look less like humans and more like machines.
The most well-known example of this is the Roomba vacuum.
Obviously a Roomba is far from being able to automate any portion of construction, but I mention Roomba as a popular example of a purpose-built machine that performs a specific task.
Here are a few of the near-term robotic solutions making their way onto construction sites Today.
Borrowing from the design of the Roomba, the Husqvarna Automower is a robotic unit that mows lawns. It looks like a larger version of the Roomba and operates in a similar manner.
The Automower requires a small wire to be placed around the perimeter of your lawn area. The machine has sensors that detect when it is over the wire letting it know not to go further.
Similar to the Roomba the Automower senses when it hits an obstruction (like a tree or a curb) and then redirects itself to continue mowing. It runs continuously until it needs to dock to recharge.
There have been 1 Million units sold as of April 2018 and not all of those were for domestic purposes.
The University of Nebraska Facilities Department recently purchase two Automowers relieving themselves of 120 man-hours per week spent on mowing.
According to Husqvarna the cost of the electricity used to charge each mower is between $10 to $50 per mowing season.
Semi-Automated Mason (SAM)100
This machine is nothing like a human and looks more like an air handling unit.
SAM is the first commercially available bricklaying robot that can be used on a construction site. The unit still requires workers to feed it bricks and mortar, but with a continuous feed of material this unit will not stop for breaks.
SAM is definitely slower than a human mason and it cannot lay corners or clean it’s own grout lines, but it is filling a growing labor gap. Despite rising wages, 63% of contractor are reporting a shortage of skilled masons. That shortage is expected to grow as the current population reaches retirement.
Currently there are eleven (11) SAM units in operation, but each unit costs $400,000 making it impractical for smaller contractors. However, as labor shortage continue, the cost may soon become more viable.
Another exciting company to keep an eye on is a company from San Francisco California called Built Robots.
Built Robots does not actually manufacture robots. Instead, Built Robots takes existing construction equipment like bulldozers and skid loaders and loads them with technology and software to automate them.
The company was founded in 2016 and is currently on it’s 10th prototype and according to Tech Crunch, Built Robotics has sold a $100 Million deal that should propel this start-up into the future.
This is one of the most exciting developments in construction as it has huge potential for automating machinery at a massive scale.
I did not want to end this article without calling attention to a few notable technologies.
Now let me be clear that these are not actually robotics, but because these technologies use machines to assists humans, I have seen them called out as robotics. Nevertheless, if these technologies grow in popularity, they have the potential to make construction safer, faster, and less physically demanding than it is Today.
Ekso Bionics is a revolutionary company originally developed to help patients with ambulatory functions.
Ekso makes exoskeleton suits that help improve the mobility of the person wearing it. In 2017 Ekso partnered with Ford to create an exoskeleton used by line workers performing overhead tasks.
The use of the exoskeleton enhanced the workers mobility creating less stress. According to the CEO Tom Lobby, the suit reduces injury to workers by 50%. The Ekso suit costs $7500.
Material Unit Lift Enhancer
Along the same line of an exoskeleton is the Material Unit Lift Enhancer or MULE. The MULE is a machine created by Construction Robotics (makers of the SAM 100 Unit).
The Mule is not a robot, rather it works like a portable crane to help masons lift up to 135 pounds.
Similar to the Ekso suit, MULE promises to help reduce injury and enhance productivity.
No discussion about technology is complete without looking forward at technologies to come. The birth of one form of automation invariably leads to another and so on.
To compliment the Semi-Automated Mason from Construction Robotics, the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT is currently developing a robot carpenter called AutoSaw.
Actually the Autosaw is less of a carpenter and more of a carpenter’s assistant. The Autosaw is an AI unit that cuts wood for a carpenter to install, reducing the risk of injury from cutting material.
These are exciting time for technology. Real robot are on the horizon and the construction industry is poised for a revolution.
I’m certain we will see these near-term technologies paving the way to a new way of construction, but there is even more to come.
What about you? What technologies are you excited about? Are there other robotics companies in construction? Tell me your stories.
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