Robots on the Verge of Invading Construction Sites

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Wednesday, December 4th, 2013
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Major advances in robotic technology promise to have a profound impact on the construction industry via the automation of core building processes.

Key researchers and theorists in the field of robotics say automated machines are about to migrate from factories and manufacturing facilities to building and construction sites as a result of rapid technological advances which enable them to perform increasingly complex tasks.

Jaron Lanier, a pioneer in the field of virtual reality, recently wrote that robots are set to assume an expanded range of roles in modern industry, taking over from human workers in a broad range of sectors, while an influential paper by T. Bock, T. Linner and W. Ikeda published by the Technical University of Munich last year sees robotic technology having a paradigm-shifting impact on the construction sector in particular.

Behrokh Khoshnevis, a professor of engineering from the University of Southern California, has developed a new robotic technology which promises to radically enhance the construction sector, beginning with the homebuilding process.

Dr. Behrokh Khoshnevis

Dr. Behrokh Khoshnevis

Khoshnevis has been working for the past decade on a technology called “Contour Crafting,” which combines the latest advances in 3D printing with advanced robotics. The process involves the use of a mechanical arm suspended from a mobile scaffold to pump liquid concrete into the exact forms and patterns that comprise the structure of a building.

3D printing software guides the arm based on detailed design blueprints, enabling the precision creation of the building’s primary structures. This high level of accuracy also permits the incorporation of plumbing, electrical facilities, flooring and finishing work during the process. Ongoing advances in the process promise to enable it to model even detailed fixtures such as window frames and door openings.

Khoshnevis claims the new technology provides major advances compared to existing options – including those such as modular construction which are considered to be cheaper and more efficient. He believes the technology will reduce the carbon footprint of the construction process, lead to a reduction on workplace-related injuries in the building sector and compete well against stick-built or modular construction in terms of costs.

While Khoshnevis considers the rapid rebuilding of disaster-struck areas to be the most suitable area for deployment of the technology in the short-term, the process could also be applied to far more remote environments and esoteric contexts.

Khoshnevis is already collaborating with NASA on the development of a robotic system which will be capable of engaging in the independent construction of buildings in off-world environments such as the moon or Mars by using the volcanic sand or soil on their surface. This could serve as a major boon to effort to conduct research or construct offworld facilities in the absence of manned missions in space.

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