Self-driving trench diggers. Drones that digitally re-create buildings. Roomba-like devices that outline where every beam on a floor should go.
Meanwhile, start-ups are pouring even more resources into the field, including building robots that survey and monitor, as well as heavy machinery that can operate on its own. They are hoping to automate a complicated field involving moving parts and vastly different sites and buildings.
“Construction robots are a great example of how robotic technology is going to touch people’s lives,” said Matthew Johnson-Roberson, the director of the robotics institute at Carnegie Mellon University. “Many [construction] jobs … that exist today are now going to be alongside robots.”
Fueling the wave on innovation is a construction crisis. Building costs are rising, and hundreds of thousands of jobs remain unfilled. Those who are in the industry are getting older and working under sometimes deadly conditions. Amid that, federal money is pouring in to build better infrastructure.
The confluence of factors have created a situation where more construction firms are turning to robots to automate work on job sites. Still, the flurry of activity caused several workforce experts to become concerned that it could lead to job losses, or a situation where people who work alongside these robots are left working more quickly and in more unsafe work environments.
Robots are no strangers in the industry. Amazon uses a slew of robots in its operations, from the Roomba-like Kiva that moves packages, to Sparrow, which grasps things with humanlike finesse. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Elon Musk has notoriously promised he would automate Tesla’s manufacturing and recently unveiled the prototype humanoid robot Optimus, aiming to reshape physical work. Google recently showed robots that are fueled by artificial intelligence to help humans with everyday tasks. Some robots are even learning how to cook fries.
But the dynamics in construction have been different, Johnson-Roberson said.
Big-scale projects, such as dams, bridges and roads, have seen quicker adoption of robotic technology, because the tasks are usually more defined and require less finesse. The home-building industry has been slower, because much of the tasks require fine motor control, which robots have had a harder time doing, he added.
Still, it’s unlikely that construction sites will see humanoid robots walking around job sites hammering nails into pieces of wood, Johnson-Roberson said. Rather, advances in laser range-finding technology, artificial intelligence software, robotic hardware and sensors will probably be put to use in automating big tasks, such as digging, surveying, pouring concrete and moving large items around.
“This is not artificial general intelligence,” he said. “This is not like we can do everything or it acts like a human. It really is — new pieces of heavy equipment that now have much better sensors and can do things that humans would have had to do” using multiple cumbersome steps.
For Noah Ready-Campbell, the chief executive of Built Robotics, the path to building a construction robot was natural. He grew up in a construction family, often working summers on job sites and hating it. After growing up, he did a stint at Google and sold a clothing technology start-up to eBay.
In 2016, he started his company, which created a machine called an exosystem that fits onto the back of trench diggers, such as big Caterpillar machines. The exosystem is outfitted with cameras, sensors and machine-learning software, and plugs into the machine’s onboard computer.
It becomes the eyes, ears and brain of the excavator, and it can run without anyone operating it. Most of the companies using Built Robotics’ system these days are renewable energy companies, such as solar farms, Ready-Campbell said. Often, these companies have land far from large cities, making it hard to recruit talent, and the digging that needs to be done is repetitive — ideal for automation, he said.
The company has raised $112 million to date, with $64 million of that coming in April. Ready-Campbell said his company could not have existed a decade ago, because it needed the cheaper sensors, spurred in part by smartphone and self-driving technology, better cameras and gains in artificial intelligence algorithms that have only cropped up in recent years.
“The tech would not have worked” a decade ago, he said. “There’s a whole bunch of different parts of our tech stack that weren’t available.”
Other construction start-ups include Australia’s Fastbrick Robotics, which builds a mobile robot called the Hadrian X that can lay up to 1,000 bricks an hour. Pennsylvania’s Advanced Construction Robotics builds robots that can tie up to 1,100 rebar intersections an hour. Canvas, founded in San Francisco, has a mobile robot that finishes drywall.
Tessa Lau, the chief executive of Dusty Robotics, built her construction robotics firm after remodeling her own home. During that process, she realized how many steps were involved and that there was room for error nearly everywhere, causing potentials for delay.
She had a background in artificial intelligence and robotics, and studied the construction industry, and realized one of the areas that could be automated was the physical sketching out of a home or office floor to tell builders where each beam needs to be nailed or plank needs to go.
To do that, her company created a Roomba-like device that prints an outline on the actual floor of the building project. Instead of people using chalk lines, they upload digital designs into software that directs the Roomba where to go within 1/16th of an inch of precision.
The company rents it out for a subscription that runs roughly $240,000 per year, Lau said. As of last year, the company was valued at roughly $250 million and has customers such as Turner Construction.
Lau said she is aware of the concern that robots might take jobs on the construction site but noted that more construction workers are retiring as fewer join the trade. That’s creating a crisis for construction companies, she said, who need a way to do the work during the talent shortage.
“Our robots are taking jobs,” she said. “The only way we’re going to meet the world’s demand for housing and infrastructure is if we build robots to take away those jobs, because people are not filling those jobs.”
Nik Theodore, the director of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois in Chicago, said the robots could hold promise if they can automate the rote, often injury-plaguing and deadly tasks construction workers have “in a very dangerous industry with large numbers of fatalities.”
But the concern, he said, is “the temptation” for automation to speed up job tasks and increase worker fatigue, leading to a situation where burnout and injuries occur more, not less.
It could “take a solution that could make the worksite less dangerous,” he said, “and in fact, make it more dangerous.”