Bot the builder: how robots are constructing the building site of the future

SAM is hard at work. Down on the building site, his arms are flying and bricks are piling up, one on top of the other. Blink and there’s another wall. Nip off for a tea break, and he’ll have the job pretty much done.

Overhead, delivery drones buzz. SAM – the name given to US-based Construction Robotic’s semi-automated bricklaying robot – doesn’t stop to watch, instead he keeps going all day, no lunch break required. By close of play, he’ll have laid 3000 bricks; the average flesh and blood brickie manages around 500.

While robo-brickie SAM presses on – even overnight, if required – driverless bulldozers can clear land for building foundations created by 3D printers, working from plans created by software programs which technology has ensured are accurate to the tiniest of measurements.

One thing obvious about the construction site of the future, it will be largely free of hi-vis jackets, hard hats and sweat.

Recent news of fleets of driverless lorries due to make their way along British motorways from next year, has already brought tomorrow’s world that bit closer. Department of Transport trials will see up to three vehicles travel in a wireless connected convoy, with acceleration and braking controlled by the lead vehicle.

If it sounds like science fiction – never mind recent warnings about how the future of robotic warfare could pan out – it’s just a taster of some of the sweeping changes technology is about to inflict on construction sites.

Right now they are corners of the industrial landscape which have barely changed since Roman times. There, other than the cranes and the earth moving kit, men – and it is still mostly men – still use bare hands to build, their mind’s eye to design and muscle power to bring it all together.

But a new wave of robotic technology is on the march. Led by the likes of SAM, it heralds a major shift to the way our construction sites are manned.

So is this brave new world of construction a force for good? Or does it come with a hefty price?

According to Daryl Teague, director of Edinburgh-based property developers Glencairn Properties, a combination of an aging workforce, the Brexit impact on labour from abroad, a skills gap – and demand for low cost homes , means the industry is perfectly positioned for technical disruption.

“According to business advisors McKinsey & Company, construction worker productivity has remained flat since 1945, while manufacturing, retail and agriculture has grown 1500%,” he says. “This is exacerbated by the lack of a skilled workforce, something which could get worse if we move towards Brexit.

“If we are to increase productivity or even maintain the current position, then we need to look for an answer.

“I am not advocating taking skilled people’s jobs away,” he adds. “But if the supply of workers is not there then something is needed.

“Robots could be the solution.”

That means machines working faster and more accurately than any building site labourer. Vehicles that sweep across a site without the need for a driver and ground prepared without sudden geological surprises thanks to 3D laser scanning and high definition photography.

In the air, drones like those being perfected by US company Skycatch, could  scan a site and send instructions to driverless vehicles below, where  foundations can be laid using 3D printers, and buildings raised courtesy of SAM’s bricklaying skills.

The few humans around will probably wear exoskeleton suits to lift giant loads, or wearable devices which deliver holographic displays and sensors to map what’s around.

But they might not even be required. Chinese company Winsum and Russia’s APIS COTR can already print a concrete home in a day using a rotary robot.  For those seeking metal in their construction, Amsterdam Robotics firm MX3D is currently printing a steel bridge in mid-air.

It sounds amazing. In reality, warns Teague, it’s unlikely to totally transform the typical Scottish construction site any time soon.

“Like all new industries the construction robotics industry is fragmented and experimental,” he says. “The industry is trying to figure out how best to use the technology.”

With the Construction Industry Training Board predicting a need for 12,000 new workers to fill the skills gap over the next five years, one route forward could be a shift towards buildings manufactured on factory production lines with minimal assembly required on site.

A certain type of job will certainly go, adds Teague, pointing to PWC predictions of a quarter of construction jobs destined to disappear as technology advances.  But skilled labour – the kind that uses years of training, talent and an artistic eye to create unique features which make a high quality building stand out from the mass produced, will survive.

“Imagine a robot trying to mitre skirting in an old house or assess how to run pipework and wires through a home which was never built for either.

“It couldn’t do it,” he adds.

“The craftsman and robot will have to work in unison. New jobs will open up for the tech savvy generation and old jobs will remain for the skilled and willing.”

But first, someone, somewhere, will have to ignite the technology fuse.

It’s underway in Australia, where Caterpillar last month (JULY) announced it is investing £1.5m in Fastbrick Robotics, developers of the Hadrian X bricklaying machine.  Closer to home in Broxburn, Core Cut Ltd is using ‘Robolition’, remote controlled robotic demolition machines which  can climb stairs, reach awkward positions and operate a jackhammer 12 times faster and harder than a human.

We are already seeing robotics play a significant role in the next generation of smart cities,” says Edinburgh University’s robotics expert Professor Sethu Vijayakumar, co-founder of the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics and a judge on television’s Robot Wars.

“Robotic semi-autonomous devices are slowly becoming a reality in large underground projects like the Crossrail in London,” he explains. “On the other hand, Rio Tinto has been operating autonomous, remotely supervised open quarry mining in Australia for over a decade now.

“At the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics, we have a collaboration with Costain that looks at real time sensing technology to prevent humans from making errors while operating these large machinery and reducing cognitive load on the operators – a concept called Shared Autonomy.

“AI and machine learning exploit large scale human and equipment tracking data to infer human behaviours and automate certain machinery scheduling and logistics to reduce risk of accidents in the workplace.”

Robots are also playing an increasing role in how buildings are cared for, he adds. “When we construct large, complicated structures, we need to maintain them. Robotics is playing an increasingly important role in asset inspection, maintenance and repair.

“The rate at which we are building bridges, skyscrapers, underground and underwater cabling and infrastructure, there is no hope but to deploy robotic solutions.”

So is the robot age about to dawn on the Scottish construction site any time soon? “The problem with the Scottish construction industry is you have old building companies that are set in their ways.  They build in a traditional manner, like the people before them built things,” adds Teague.

“There are huge health and safety issues too. How do you control workers and autonomous vehicles on a building site together? You have an 18 tonne digger swinging about that’s been told to dig a hole and will digging regardless of what is going on around it.”

And while robotic bricklayers like SAM can throw those bricks together at breakneck speed, there are limits.

“They can lay bricks in a binary manner, but when you get into different types of design, you need craftsmen,” says Teague, whose properties are recognised for their attention to detail, style and quality.

“We will never lose true craftsmen.”

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