In a series of postcards drawn for the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris, illustrator Jean-Marc Côté imagined what the world would look like 100 years later. One innovation he imagined was the use of robotics in construction – Côté’s painting shows a building site where robots autonomously chisel stones while others put the bricks and mortar in place.
While automation in construction is still relatively limited today, the Victorian-era artist’s ideas were not too far off from today’s emerging reality.
As part of our series on innovations in building technology, we look at the current status and future of robotics in the construction industry – as well as challenges to their implementation.
Robotics in construction: 5 exciting areas of development
Research into the use of robots in construction is not new – scientists have been exploring the potential of the technology since the 1960s. However, in the last decade there has been a significant uptick in investment, research and real-world use of this technology. At present, there are five major areas to watch:
- On-site production robots
This is perhaps the kind of application most people imagine when they think about robotics in construction. In recent years we have seen prototypes and tests with various construction robots such as Hadrian X, a bricklaying robot, or Japanese firm Shmizu Corp’s Robo-Welder which can handle a variety of welding tasks. Similarly, there are several examples of on-site 3D printing robots such as this French social housing structure which claims to be the first house printed in 3D.
- Pre-fab construction robots
Robotic arms and machines have been used for decades in factory production lines, and so it’s no surprise that the growing market for pre-fabricated homes is also using this technology. One pre-fab construction company that uses robotics in its factory lines is Californian firm Katerra.
- Autonomous vehicles
From diggers to bulldozers, there are numerous building site vehicles which are primed for automation in construction. As we wrote in our blog on AI in construction, firms like Built Robotics provide machinery to move earth and rubble without human intervention. That could eventually allow for building and site clearing work to be conducted 24/7, rather than being restricted to working hours.
- Inspection robots in construction
Site inspection tasks take time and energy – and so a number of inspection robots are being developed which could help streamline the task. It is still early days for this technology, but Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot was recently trialled on a construction site to conduct surveys of a project.
At PlanRadar, we specialise in building maintenance ticketing and reporting software, so we’re excited about the potential for robots in this sector in future.
Working on a construction site is physically demanding, and strain from lifting heavy weights is a common cause of building site injuries. And this is where exoskeletons could help. Exoskeletons are pieces of kit worn by construction site workers that provide robotic features. They can help wearers to lift heavier weights while reducing fatigue. Last year, Wilmott Dixon began trialling an upper-body exoskeleton to help workers lift heavy weights on one project in Wales.
Obstacles to using robots in construction
Sales of construction industry robotics are set to reach some $70 million in 2020, rising to over $225 million by 2025. Nevertheless, the adoption of robotics in the construction industry is significantly lower than in other traditionally manual sectors. There are several reasons for this slow take-up:
- The complexity of construction sites: Robots have been most successfully adopted in mass manufacturing lines, where they are held in place and perform the same tasks over and again. This is worlds apart from outdoor construction sites, with unpredictable weather and an end product (be that a road, building, bridge or anything else) that is unique. The complexity and judgement involved in building sites makes them very challenging places for robots.
- Costs: Investing in robotics involves high up-front costs including R&D. With many construction firms operating on thin margins, the investment is still judged too high by many. For now, at least, it is cheaper to hire and train humans than it is to invest in robots.
- The technology must improve: As the examples above show, there is plenty of promising innovation around robots in construction. Nevertheless, none of these robots is yet widely used and there are few firms actively using robots on-site as part of their regular activities. The technology needs to progress significantly before it can expect widespread take-up.
- Legal/health and safety issues: Building sites can be dangerous places, and so in many countries, health and safety legislation is a serious barrier to the use of robotics in construction. Understandably, insurers and lawyers are concerned about the risks of an unmanned, autonomous robot trundling around a busy building site.
Advantages of automation with construction robots
While there are certainly obstacles to the use of robotics on construction, the potential benefits are worth considering. Advantages of automation include:
- Less waste: 3D printed and pre-fab construction robots mean you only use the specific amount of material needed for a project – which reduces waste, saves money and is good for the environment too.
- Respond to labour shortages: The shortage of skilled labourers is greater than ever – at the beginning of 2020 the UK was short of 200,000 construction workers. Robots could help fill this gap.
- Fewer injuries: Building sites can be dangerous places, so tools like exoskeletons or autonomous inspection robots could help in different ways to reduce risk to human beings.
- Faster work, lower costs: One of the great advantages of automation with robots is the potential for cost and time savings they introduce. Robots can work 24/7 without getting tired – this means that certain stages of projects could be completed significantly faster at a much lower expense than usual.
Would you use robotics in construction projects?
It is still early days for the use of robots in construction, yet the level of innovation happening in the field is very promising indeed. Today, the use of robotics in construction is still largely at the prototype and testing stage, yet in the coming years, we can expect more firms to begin using this technology as part of their daily business. Will your organisation be one of them?
PlanRadar was founded in 2013 and provides innovative mobile-first software solutions to the construction and real estate industries. Our app is available on all iOS, Android and Windows devices and has helped more than 7,000 customers in over 44 countries to digitise their workflow. Learn more about the app here.