[+] Robotic Revolution Coming to Construction


Robot apprentices strapping on tool belts might seem a futuristic fairytale but the reality is momentum is building for AI and wearable technology in the construction industry.

Boston Dynamics, a leading US engineering and robotic design company, has this year released a series of videos unveiling the latest improved capabilities of its humanoid robot, Atlas. 

A handy helper made from lightweight 3D-printed parts, Atlas can manoeuvre around obstacles, correct its own balance, climb stairs, grip items and effortlessly lift heavy objects.

Autonomous robots throwing their weight around construction sites is one way AI can assist the industry, while wearable tech is also helping take the load off busy builders. 

Companies including the Australasian-based Exxovantage are providing solutions including exoskeletons, worn by construction workers to provide superhuman strength, increase safety and improve productivity.

According to SafeWork Australia, the construction industry’s on-the-job fatality rate was 2.1 per 100,000 workers in 2021, the fourth-most-affected industry in the country. 

And for the 2020 to 2021 financial year, despite Covid-related lockdowns, construction accounted for 16,088 (or 12 per cent) of all serious injury worker’s compensation claims. 

A world where robots clock on and take the place of workers on site may still be several lifetimes away, however, the technology already exists to make a day on the tools a lot easier.

Construction reaping what others sowed

Research into autonomous robots and exoskeletons began in the military, mining and medical fields, but the business of building is also benefitting.

Professor Ian Manchester, director of the Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney, says there are many traits being developed in today’s robotics that lend themselves to the construction sector. 

▲ Professor Ian Manchester with Cassie.

“If you look at the history of robotics, the kinds of problems being solved in the earliest days were ones with a very regular and repeating sequence of actions, like production line management or car manufacturing where you’re making thousands of identical objects and it is exactly the same process every time,” he says.

“For decades these machines were kept separate from people; kept in cages and if humans came near they were programmed to shut down for safety reasons. 

“That’s all changing because today there’s a lot of research happening in areas where you have robots or automated machines interacting quite closely with people.”

Prof Manchester says Australian-based research is making significant headway in field robotics, where robots operate in primarily outdoor, or less structured scenarios. 

His team is working on marine robotics, mining automation and on autonomous technology that can even fight bushfires. As a result, today’s tech is learning to coexist with people.

“Where a machine or a robot needs to operate quite close with somebody, then safety becomes a more significant factor. We need to ask the question, ‘How does a robot and a human collaborate? How can they actually work together towards a common goal?’,” he says.

Whether it’s military, mining or construction robotics, Prof Manchester said there is crossover.

“Technologies are converging. Construction isn’t an easy area to automate, but we’re moving in that direction,” he says. 

“A robot operating in a complex environment needs to have some kind of situational awareness. 

“It needs to know where it is and where other objects are, and this would be vital on a building site.

“Imagine a site where 10 people are working together—it’d be very important that the robot had some perception of where people are around it so it was able to operate safely alongside them and even collaborate.”

Prof Manchester says workplace robotics are inevitable for industries seeking better safety and efficiency.

“We’re a long way from having robots take our jobs—that’s not going to happen in any of our lifetimes,” he says. 

“However, to some extent, almost every area of the economy is embracing robotics and similar technology or at least sees the potential.”

Workers suit up for the future

Exoskeletons—frameworks fitted with assisted or motorised “muscles” to multiply the wearer’s strength and extend their productivity—can make objects feel much lighter, assist workers’ posture and help them avoid strain or more serious injuries by literally doing all the heavy lifting.

Exxovantage supplies exoskeletons and workplace wearables along with data analytics and AI fit-for-purpose solutions. 

Exxovantage global chief executive Arnaud Daurat says that although the uptake of wearables for construction workers is in its infancy, the technology is a no-brainer for building-related businesses.

“The mindsets and stigmas around getting help, especially in construction, are still quite raw,” he says. 

“It’s a macho environment with a ‘she’ll be right’ attitude. Many workers know the job is hard but consider it’s all just part of the work. 

“But now we’re saying you don’t have to feel pain while doing your job.

▲ A worker wearing an exoskeleton designed for the construction industry.

“Today’s younger section of the workforce is more aware of work-life balance, wants to travel the world, eat salad and do yoga so they aren’t willing to go through the same things their older peers have. 

“The feedback we’re getting from organisations is that the desire is there; they’re more inclined to adopt new technologies to see them through to a safe retirement.”

Daurat says wearable technology will become part of the industry’s safety gear.

“I believe when you enter a site and you see a sign asking for your helmet, glasses and boots that exoskeletons will be there as part of your PPE gear,” he says. 

“It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when. 

“I think the construction industry has a good two to three years to go before really starting to mass adopt the technology and in seven to 10 years the majority of these workforces will be suited.”

Aides are available now as passive and active devices. While lightweight passive exoskeletons (some of which are less than 800g) don’t need an energy supply, heavier active suits have sensors and motors to provide more support. 

Partial passive exoskeletons can retail in Australia for about $3000 while powered suits can sell in excess of $8000, however retail prices are declining each year. 

The alternative is hiring wearable technology much like any other building tool. 

Exxovantage estimates the support of a back exoskeleton reduces the load on the lower back by 30 per cent with a 15kg assistance for eight hours. 

The mid-height exoskeleton reduces muscle activity in the biceps and deltoids with the arm at mid-height by 33 per cent and 16 per cent respectively with a 7kg assistance for eight hours.

▲ Exxovantage estimates the support of a back exoskeleton reduces the load on the lower back by 30 per cent with a 15kg assistance for eight hours. 

Productivity and safety are key but Daurat says there are three more keywords industry leaders should focus on—engagement, attraction and retention.

“The only way to achieve that is through technology. You cannot achieve that through mentoring alone, we’ve been doing that for decades already,” he says. 

“You want a worker to feel empowered and supported. If a worker has the choice of going to two companies and one says, ‘We have the technology to support you while you’re with us’ and the other company has nothing, who will the worker go to?” 

Investing in tomorrow

Construction companies and builders taking up technology aren’t only investing in their people but are also ripe for financial rewards, according to Salvest managing director Anthony Ferraro.

The non-bank lender, which provides financial solutions for developers, has begun paying attention to businesses who think outside the box.

“One of the biggest things we’ve considered when raising capital during the past 12 months has been a company’s environmental, social, and governance, or ESG,” he says. 

“We always ask, ‘Are they the right builder to deliver a certain development?’ but also, ‘What are their ESG compliance criteria?’.”

Ferraro says that despite construction costs skyrocketing in recent years, savvy companies need to spend money to make money. 

While productivity and staff retention is great for business, so is reducing expenditure such as insurances.

“By taking on these new technologies like exoskeletons you reduce your overall costs, of course, but you also showcase to your insurer what preventative measures have been put in place, even if they’re not necessarily outlined under the building code or implemented by the union,” Ferraro says. 

“You’re proving that you’re doing this as an overarching prevention for your workers, because you value their safety and are very conscious of health and wellbeing.

“At the end of the day, if you don’t evolve, you dissolve and to date that’s what’s largely happened in the construction industry. 

“Being more open-minded as to how tech can assist you design and construct more developments in a more efficient manner assists overall productivity, protects workers, and ultimately the insurer will reward you by giving you lower premiums.”

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Article originally posted at: https://www.theurbandeveloper.com/articles/ai-wearable-tech-construction-australia-boston-dynamics