Construction Robotics’ Semi-Automated Mason is the world’s first commercial bricklaying robot. (Image courtesy of Construction Robotics.)
According to a recent report by Markets and Markets, the global construction robot market is set to more than double by 2023, going from $76.6 million to an estimated $166.4 million.
If the report’s predicted results become reality, it would mark a significant change in the industry. When it comes to artificial intelligence and robotics use, construction has traditionally lagged behind factories or warehouses. The unpredictable and fluid environment has historically made it more difficult for robots to perform jobs on a construction site.
While construction robots have gained ground with the development of robots that can do anything from excavating earth to taking overhead photos, construction is still not at that point yet.
Robots by Type
MIT’s DCP platform, a robotic arm capable of 3Dprinting structures from building foam, during its 2016 test run. (Image courtesy of MIT via fastcodesign.com
The report separated construction robots into three types: traditional, robotic arm, and robotic exoskeleton (a wearable suit that boosts users’ physical capabilities, a little like Iron Man). Traditional robots hold the largest share of the market, and according to the report, they arestill expected to hold that share by the end of 2023.
“Traditional” robots cover a wide swathe of the market, from vehicles to humanoid bots to rovers. In the construction industry, one of the most prominent types of traditional robot is the semi-autonomous construction vehicle—think Tesla, but for excavators and backhoes. These vehicles work off 3D models of the construction site, and their software uses data transmitted from the heavy equipment alongside the 3D map to instruct the vehicles on where to go and how to operate. Generally, there is an operator monitoring the vehicle, but not directing its progress.
While traditional robots hold the lion’s share of the market, the report predicts that exoskeletons will have the highest growth rate of any of these sectors. But, at least for now, robotic arm machines are spending far more time in the spotlight.
One of the reasons for their recent popularity on the construction site is that robotic arms have recently become a whole lot more portable. Robot arms travelling on semi-autonomous platforms can build small structures almost entirely on their own, often using 3D-printing technology. MIT’s DCP platform, which has been in development since 2016, is a robotic arm capable of 3Dprinting life-sized structures out of insulating foam. In July 2016, the team performed a test of the arm’s capabilities, printing a dome with a 48-foot diameter that workers could pour concrete over to make a more permanent structure.
And more recent developments include mobile robots that can pour concrete on their own. In April, CLS Architetti built Europe’s first onsite 3D-printed house with the help of the CyBe RC 3Dp, billed as the world’s first mobile 3D printer. The CyBe poured concrete one layer at a time along the walls, traveling around the building to reach the entire structure. The only step that needed to be performed by human workers was putting in the windows and the fixtures.
Robotic arms are also gaining popularity because of their ability to perform taxing, monotonous tasks well and quickly. Construction Robotics recently developed the Semi-Automated Mason, a bricklaying robot capable of laying between 300 and 400 bricks an hour, much faster than a human’s 60 to 75 bricks per hour. While workers still need to load bricks into the machine and scrape off any excess mortar, the robot can decrease some of the physical strain of the labor. And Advanced Construction Robotics recently put out the TyBot, an autonomous rebar-tying robot capable of tying a rebar intersection in an average of 5.5 seconds. The TyBot has already been successfully trialed on Pennsylvania’s Freedom Road Bridge.
One specific segment of the market that the report didn’t focus on was drones. Drones have gained prominence in the construction industry because they’re an extremely efficient tool for surveying construction sites, capable of performing a survey in hours that would take a traditional surveyor on a truck several days. Indeed, a recent report by Goldman Sachs predicted that construction would be the fastest-growing segment of the drone industry over the next 10 years. Whether or not they are considered “robots,” drones are quickly becoming mainstream on build sites.
Autonomous vs Semi-Autonomous
The report also looked at the robots’ relative autonomy, segmenting construction robots into fully autonomous and semi-autonomous. These two categories are far less binary than they sound: Robots can have varying levels of autonomy from their human project managers, and there’s not really a clear-cut distinction between the two. Nevertheless, the report predicted that semi-autonomous construction robots are expected to hold a larger share of the overall construction robot market by 2018 and that the market for them would also grow at a faster rate.
Semi-autonomous robots have been making a big splash in the construction industry lately. They reduce the learning curve for operating machinery, making it easier for less-skilled and experienced workers to perform more difficult tasks. This is especially important in places like the U.S.market, where the construction industry faces a shortage of skilled workers. A 2017 report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the USG Corporation found that 95 percent of contractors have serious difficulty finding trained labor for projects.
But Noah Ready-Campbell, owner of the autonomous construction equipment startup Built Robotics, insists that robots will not replace those workers any time soon. “The robots basically do 80 percent of the work, which is more repetitive, more dangerous and more monotonous,” he told the Chicago Tribune this year.“And then the operator does the more skilled work, where you really need a lot of finesse and experience.”
The Alpine RD220 Demolition Robot. Like most demolition robots, it takes the form of an autonomous excavator. and moves on rubber treads. (Image courtesy of CMSC.)
The report also pointed to the prominent role of robots in demolitions, predicting that it would hold the largest share of the construction robot business by the end of 2023. While these robots aren’t making headlines, their influence has quietly grown, as autonomous and semi-autonomous machines are well equipped to face the challenges of the industry.
Demolition robots are shaped like tiny excavators, but without the cab that would traditionally be needed by a human worker. The lack of cab makes it far easier for the robot to fit into small spaces like a stairwell or an elevator, which is important, as demolitions are often done in small spaces.
But the most important thing that demolition robots bring to the table is increased safety. Demolition can be a dangerous job, and these robots allow operators to control the demolition process from a safe distance away, using a joystick.
Who’s in the Market?
Markets and Markets’ forecast is ambitious, and it remains to be seen whether the construction robotics market will actually double in the next five years. But, whether or not all their predictions are realized, one thing is certain: Construction robots are here to stay.