Robotics: Changing the future of on-site construction
The construction industry is constantly evolving. With the introduction of new technologies, changing legislation, and the volume at which infrastructure is being built, it’s not surprising that robotic technology is slowly being introduced into the world of construction. Factors such as labour shortages, technological advancements, and an ever-evolving landscape may be catalysts behind the steady increase in autonomous operations and the development of robotic piling rigs and machines.
So, how are robots changing on-site construction, and where can we expect to see them in the future? At present, the use of advanced robotics within the construction workplace is fairly uncommon. However, an increased number of autonomous systems are being employed in a variety of construction-based environments to mitigate health and safety issues, boost productivity levels, and help with improving quality control whilst reducing overall costs. Incorporating robotics could prove beneficial to contractors and developers, due to the potential for faster task completion and safer working environments. Total automation is a little ambitious, however robots are currently being used in three key areas; 3D printing, 3D mapping, and to alleviate workplace injuries.
Additive manufacturing, commonly known as 3D printing, has become one of the fastest growing fabrication techniques in a number of different industries, including medicine, aerospace, and more recently construction. Buildings are able to be 3D-printed with machines specifically designed to place layer upon layer of concrete, with this method enabling structures to be designed and fabricated within weeks rather than months. Additive manufacturing is a relatively new concept within the construction industry and is therefore only currently being used for demonstrative purposes. However, as the technology advances and 3D printing becomes more mainstream, it’s evident that robots on site could become more commonplace with a larger variety of applications becoming interchangeable with traditional building methods. Furthermore, it has been estimated that if construction companies replaced just 25% of their projects with 3D printed structures, they could reduce overall costs by up to 90%. The majority of additive printers work autonomously meaning a reduction in labour requirements, whilst a potential uplift in quality, and a deduction of overall costs.
A vital part of any construction project is the creation of a three-dimensional site model. Site mapping requires a device to scan multiple points which represent a geometric structure in the form of a naturalistic map. At present, the majority of Lidar-based technology requires personnel to manually manoeuvre various sensors across the site. Despite the majority of Lidar-based technology currently used within construction being highly accurate, there have been some safety concerns raised. Operators are frequently required to work in spaces with limited headroom, restricted ventilation, and potentially unstable ground conditions. In order to combat these prospective safety issues, as well as increase productivity levels, site scanning robots have recently been developed and tested on a variety of job sites.
These machines are able to independently climb stairs, navigate difficult terrain and survey areas, creating a real-time 3D model/map within approximately thirty-minutes. Autonomous robots fitted with the specialist technology, are able to build an accurate real-time picture of their surroundings, whilst also identifying potential obstacles and high-risk areas which are relayed to the operator. Lidar-robots do not require a GPS signal, enabling them to easily work in areas such as underground tunnels and other remote or difficult to access spaces, allowing for the complete site to be mapped regardless of location or accessibility.
The use of robotics technology within 3D mapping could prove to be beneficial in a number of ways. Primarily the time reduction which could enable contractors and developers to save time completing the job as the process of scanning is accelerated using robots. An estimated two-billion pounds is spent annually on construction re-work, earlier identification of errors and discrepancies could reduce costs as well as long delays. One demonstration of the bot found that real-time modelling reduced overall costs by 11%, and increased productivity by almost 40%.
Due to the nature of the industry, many construction-based roles are fairly labour-intensive meaning repetitive stress/strain injuries are fairly commonplace. It has previously been reported that approximately 19,000 overextension/overexertion injuries occur each year within the UK. A large number of tasks within construction are repetitive, making it the ideal environment for robots. Autonomous robots are able to complete a variety of tasks accurately and quickly, without sustaining injuries. Therefore, the introduction of robots onto sites with the sole purpose of completing repetitive or mundane tasks could significantly reduce the number of injuries experienced by workers. Generally, on site health and safety issues could be significantly reduced with operators using robots to conduct tasks that are better suited to automation.
In addition to injury prevention, robots can be used to remove unnecessary health and safety risks. Using bots for inspections and to work on sites with tricky terrain and hazards, could help to reduce the risk for workers who may be unaware of potential dangers. Robots can survey sites quickly, recognising hazards and obstacles that may pose a safety risk.
Robotics and piling
Within the last five years, American researchers and specialist engineers have been working together to create a robot that can autonomously drive interlocking steel sheet piles into soil (pictured below). Sheet piling is the process of driving vertical barriers into the soil in order to form or stabilise a structure. Usually sheet piles are used to mitigate erosion or flooding but can also be used in a number of construction projects to provide support for retaining walls, foundations, and excavations. Traditional methods of sheet piling can be challenging, as only a small proportion of the machine’s weight/force is used to drive the pile into the ground. By contrast, the robotic rig is capable of leveraging all its weight and can utilise an on-board vibratory hammer in order to successfully complete projects in less time. In addition, the robot is able to work on sites with varying terrain types, gradients, and topography. As its wheels are coupled to a separate linear actuator, piles are able to be driven perpendicularly into the soil. Once the sheet piles are installed, the robot is able to continue operating ensuring the next pile interlocks with the previous one, constructing a continuous wall in the process.
Considering future piling applications, the developers hope to create a group of robots which could function both individually and collectively. This technology would enable work to be undertaken in hazardous or very remote locations as (research suggests) these robots are able to adapt to unexpected or changing conditions. It is thought that if successful, these robots could be used to complete more tasks such as silt fencing installation, slope stabilisation, and land restoration.
When it comes to the fusion of construction and robotics, it’s evident that completely autonomous operations on site are not likely to be taking place any time soon. However, it is exciting to see how technological advances could improve site safety, increase productivity levels, and help to reduce costs.
There are a number of barriers to entry which could impact the success of robotics penetrating the construction sector, the most poignant factor being customer acceptance. Despite automated technologies undergoing rigorous testing, people are often hesitant to trust new processes, especially in higher-risk settings. The long-term results of building with robots have yet to be evaluated, which may cause concern for contractors and operators. Nevertheless, robots thus far have proven to increase efficiency, reduce overall costs, and mitigate health and safety issues, ensuring a safer working environment for human personnel. Robotic technology does have the potential to change construction for the better, with research regularly being undertaken to explore various applications and how the use of robots can be tailored to suit a variety of sites and sectors. Innovation is an essential part of any industry and there are a number of areas within construction that could benefit from automation and the utilisation of robotic technology. The steady introduction of robotics may prove to be a milestone for the industry.
To learn more about the future of robotics within the construction industry take a look at the following resources: