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Can robots reboot construction sites?

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Even as industries across Pennsylvania deploy robots at their factories, construction remains largely a human endeavor. Now a team headed by Penn State University is working to change that. Their motivations include increased safety and productivity (which could help make housing more affordable) and addressing a national, industry-wide shortage of skilled labor.

“At the moment, robotics are in their infancy in the construction industry,” explains Robert Leicht, associate professor of architectural engineering at Penn State. “Exposed sites, dynamic conditions and bespoke products are difficult for [robots].”

Manufacturing robots generally work in closed, static environments in fixed positions. Construction robots, however, need to be mobile, work in an evolving environment, handle weather and other on-site conditions, and interact with humans.

Leicht is a co-principal researcher on the three-year, $1.5 million project funded by the National Science Foundation; his partners include aerospace engineering professor Alan Wagner and psychology professor Susan Mohammed, both from Penn State, plus Marissa Shuffler of Clemson University and Bryan Franz from the University of Florida.

While there have been many advancements to improve site safety over the years, there is still room for improvement. We can avoid putting human workers in dangerous or high-risk situations by having robots support certain tasks.Robert Leicht, Penn State

Leicht and Wagner are focused on assembling a catalog of clearly defined tasks that robots can perform on a construction site. They will also develop an algorithm to relay step-by-step, robot-comprehensible instructions for completing tasks in an ever-changing environment. And they will identify risks associated with using teams of robots and humans on shared sites.

The other investigators are looking at ways to facilitate efficient human-robot interaction and analyzing how construction trade workers perceive robots. After all, automation is often controversial, but construction robots are not seen as a threat to the building trades.

“The emphasis is on the role of robots as a member of construction teams or crews,” says Leicht. “By extension, the focus is understanding how trade workers could interact with robots, understanding the risks associated with deploying this technology onto construction sites, and the planning that is needed to integrate robots into the dynamic construction processes.

“The skilled labor shortage in construction is a critical piece to the need for new methods and approaches, such as robotics,” he continues. “While there have been many advancements to improve site safety over the years, there is still room for improvement. We can avoid putting human workers in dangerous or high-risk situations by having robots support certain tasks — similar to the way bomb squads employ robots to disarm explosive devices.”

Ultimately, construction robots could even impact the design of new buildings.

“As robots often change how we do work, there will likely be new materials or methods (e.g. additive manufacturing) that emerge,” he explains. “In construction this could impact the design of the building itself, through new forms, functions, or methods that were not previously possible.”

ELISE VIDER is news editor of Keystone Edge.

LEAD IMAGE: Susan Mohammed, Robert Leicht and Alan Wagner, left to right, stand behind a Husky by ClearPath Robotics, front left, which can move around rough terrain on construction sites and capture data, and a Pepper Robot by SoftBank Robotics, a service-oriented robot that can recognize human faces and have conversations. Photo / Tyler Henderson, Penn State 

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