A group of Swiss architects and roboticists has created an autonomous construction robot that’s able to move around a jobsite unaided, is able to lay bricks into pre-programmed structures and accommodate minor design changes.
It's an important step because it may open the way to a future generation of robots that could be used widely on building sites.
Robots are usually considered to be best suited to repetitive tasks, which is why developers have devoted a lot of time to building machines that can lay bricks. Some such machines are truly autonomous; others need a human working alongside them to do the trowelling.
Robots are also bad at moving over uneven surfaces. When they fall, they usually can't pick themselves up.
Matthias Kohler, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, is one of the supervising professors on the research team. He's also an architect, so he's delighted with a robot that can go onto a construction site and build non-standard designs.
Another supervisor, Jonas Buchli, says construction sites are fascinating to roboticists, calling them "interesting environments" because "they are somewhere in between the completely planned and controlled environment of a factory or a lab floor, and the completely chaotic environment of outdoors."
A building site is "a kind of semi-structured environment where we can test and develop the technology that is required for robots to move around and do useful things."
The construction robot the teams have developed is an industrial arm on a mobile base. It's designed to be self-contained, without the need for external systems to let it know where it is. It has a laser rangefinder which, along with computer algorithms, helps build a three-dimensional map of a site that is linked to structural drawings.
It's the map that lets the robot know its location at all times and which enables it to move around the site without assistance. Its movements are aided by cameras and sensors that can measure distance.
So there is a good chance that we will have unsupervised robots working on jobsites, perhaps even working alongside humans.
That idea might horrify some present-day construction workers, but Kohler says there is no need for them to be alarmed.
"I think this will become a game-changer in construction," he says. "I think that in the next five to 10 years we are going to see mobile robots on the construction site, but they're not going to replace humans. They'll actually collaborate with humans, so the best of each kind of skills comes together."
The lab where this development work is being done has a couple of other irons in the fire. One involves piles of materials of widely varying size and shape. The object is for a robot to measure random pieces then fit them together to make a complete standing structure.
Another project is called Mesh Mould. It's a system that uses 3D printers to extrude fibres which can be robotically fabricated into reinforcement meshes that can be filled with concrete. The object is to eliminate the need for formwork.
All of these projects fall into the classification of "field robotics," which includes autonomous cars, drone aircraft and robots that can, on their own, perform a variety of specialized tasks on farms. The term was first used more than three decades ago to define robotics in unconstrained, uncontrived settings.
Indeed, field robots are likely to be the first introduction many people get to the subject.
It's a rapidly growing sector of the robotics industry, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology is among the international leaders, along with places like Carnegie Mellon University in the U.S., the University of Sydney in Australia and King's College London in England.
Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.