Drones in Construction
Construction has always been regarded as a highly human activity — working with your hands and tools to make something out of nothing that often looks attractive to boot. Well, robots are poised to lighten our load, so to speak, with drones in construction experiments being deployed to test their abilities for erecting permanent structures.
While it may seem impossible, the early results are quite promising when looking at a few limited applications. For other applications, some industry experts predict that the limitations of drones may mean that construction practices will have to change, not the robots.
It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! No, it’s a Construction Worker!
The most immediately-deployable use for drones in construction right now comes from what could be considered their posterchild: the quadcopter drone. These instantly-recognizable propeller-driven devices are catching fire as the most commercially-viable form of drone technology at the moment. They are lightweight, relatively cheap to manufacture, highly maneuverable, respond equally well to preprogrammed algorithms and remote inputs, can be easily outfitted with equipment like cameras and, most importantly, they can fly.
Private firms are already selling drone flight survey services to visually inspect areas both from a bird’s eye distance and up close. Drones can navigate tight spaces effectively, such as mines and partially-completed structures, for survey purposes without having to endanger a human being. Software allows them to stream extremely-accurate data to map out areas with 3D modelling. Hi-resolution cameras also provide visual inspections of components like utility lines to look for anything out of the ordinary.
But can they build? Sort of. An early experiment from ETH Zurich’s Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control demonstrated that robots could be used to construct stable structures completely autonomously while responding to conditions in real time. Each unit successfully navigated the space while avoiding their partners to build a tower… out of polystyrene blocks.
Naturally, the small load-carrying capacity of these devices limits their usefulness for most typical building projects. Increasing their size only makes them pose a greater threat to human coworkers while eliminating the agility that makes them so appealing.
Researcher Ammar Mirjan suggests that these robots’ limitations will cause design of construction to shift and not the other way around. They already excel at building tensile structures and other complex geometric configurations from lightweight objects. “It is likely that the conditions of how things are designed and built will be altered and hence resulting in new forms of architectural materialization” he tells Gizmag. “History suggests that new tools and technologies often shift existing processes.”
I Am Bender. Please Insert Girder.
Aside from the small, fleet-winged quadcopter models, other heavy hitters are entering the scene. Larger-model drones in construction actually show a huge amount of promise in several niche applications.
For one, they are incredible stone masons. German Architecture firm Gramazio Kohler helped spawn the R-O-B project that gave birth to mobile fabrication units capable of laying bricks in complex geometric patterns that actually strengthen stability. They also look great! In one project, they constructed a wall for the Gantenbein Winery in Fläsch, Switzerland that resembles 3D grapes when viewed from afar.
Another area larger-sized robots display potential is in tearing things down. Demolition remains one of the most dangerous components of an already-dangerous industry, so having robots that can deconstruct areas without putting human lives in danger brings obvious benefits.
Husqvarna has their DXR140 demolition robot that is currently remote-controlled but is entering autonomous trials. Swedish firm Omer Haciomeroglu has an even more captivating design that uses high-powered water jets to effectively “erase” concrete from structures and expose the rebar to be re-used again. The ERO models even recycle water and turn the concrete into aggregate to be used again.
As you can see, drones in construction is less science fiction than a looming frontier that holds the power to transform the industry from the ground up — literally.