A recent survey indicates 50% of contractors are currently using robots and other autonomous devices and equipment during construction. The same survey indicates that number will jump to 80% within the next 10 years. Experience shows that robots can increase productivity on construction projects just as they have done in other industries. Robots reduce waste, improve safety, reduce job-site injuries, enhance productivity, solve labor shortages, drive cost savings, and work 24/7 without breaks, overtime, or vacations. Given all the benefits, it would appear. the biggest challenge facing contractors will be how and when to use robots and whether to buy or rent.
The robots in current usage are not two-legged man-like machines capable of performing multiple tasks based upon artificial intelligence or AI. Rather these robots are autonomous devices or machines designed to perform specific activities based upon design information input from the contractor. More often than not, such input is drawn from designs created by computer assisted design or CAD and building information models or BIM and then translated over to global positioning system or GPS coordinates that guide the robots. While the robots in current usage pose no immediate threat towards the wholesale replacement of humans in the construction process, they do represent the ability to accurately and dependably perform certain tasks that free humans to focus upon tasks of which robots are not yet capable.
The types of tasks and activities that contractors are currently using robots and other autonomous devices and equipment to perform vary and include the following:
- Demolition. Large track mounted robots, using automated jackhammers, located using remote controls, survey and demolish structures in which it is unsafe for workers.
- Layout. Small autonomous mobile robots (about the size of a vacuum cleaner) draw the working outline and lay out of work for all trades in a single pass onto flat surfaces (mostly concrete slabs) for buildings.
- Management. Small flying drones and ground-based rovers evaluate, monitor, and report on construction progress of construction using cameras that employ light detection and ranging or LiDAR and then compare the current images with the end-product depicted by CAD or BIM, or support the creation of a digital twin. [See, “How the Internet of Things or IOT is Monitoring Construction Activities”, posted 6/14/23].
- Grading. Large box-like controller’s mount on the backside of traditional bulldozers used to grade construction sites and autonomously control the movement, cuts, fills and grading activities through connections to the controls otherwise used by a human operator.
- Trenching. Large box-like controller’s mount on the backside of traditional track backhoes used to excavate trenches on construction sites and autonomously control the movement, excavation and trenching activities through connections to the controls otherwise used by a human operator.
- 3D Printing. Large rail- based robots extending across the structure or small track-based robots moving about the structure pump and extrude concrete for walls required for the construction of homes and small commercial buildings. [See “Is 3D Printing the Future of Construction”, posted 5/10/23].
- Rebar Installation. Large rail-based robots extending across the work area load and carry 5,000- pound bundles of reinforcing steel or rebar and then place and tie the rebar on flat surfaces, in both a longitudinal and transverse direction, for road and bridge construction.
- Welding. Medium sized robots with extendable arms move across flat surfaces to weld all types of metals, both structural and ornamental, but are mostly used in connection with modular construction. [See, “Modularization a/k/a 'Supersizing Construction' is Slowly Expanding into the US Housing Market”, posted 5/24/23].
- Brick/Block. Robots that move on flat surfaces, whether a slab or a scaffold, lift brick from pallets, apply mortar, and place brick for walls while similar robots do the same for larger and heavier concrete block under the supervision of masons.
While these tasks and activities represent most of the current usages of robots in construction, other technologies are being developed at a rapid pace. It is highly likely that usages for robots will continue to expand given the lack of both skilled and unskilled required for construction. [See “When Will the US get Serious About the Need for Education in the Skilled Construction Trades”, posted 7/12/23].