Surveying for a Construction Robot —True Human-Machine Collaboration
Author: Richard Ostridge
Every time I look at my social media feeds, I see at least one post about Artificial Intelligence or Machine Learning. However, I recently read about an equally impactful technology revolution that seems underrepresented in such discussions — robot builders.
Previous technological advances already reduce the effort required to build – diggers, cement mixers, jackhammers, electric drills and screwdrivers, to mention just some equipment, that simplifies construction tasks. In the last few years, though, another significant advance has started to come into focus — automation.
An article from the World Economic Forum titled “Built by Robots: This Swiss Company Could Change the Construction Industry Forever” made me think about how the fundamentals of building are rapidly changing. The article features a proof of concept three level ‘DFAB’ house in Switzerland, featuring 3D-printed ceilings, energy-efficient walls and timber beams assembled by robots on site. A researcher responsible for the project quoted in the article, Matthias Kohler, had a clear vision of how machines and humans would work together in the future. According to Kohler, robots should not be expected to synthesise human craftsmanship, but rather humans should reverse engineer the design to allow robots to build materials and structures that suit their strengths.
Off-site house construction is not new — in the last 20 years, brands like Huf Haus have refreshed the public's enthusiasm for prefabricated buildings. What’s different about the DFAB house is the scale use of 3D printing and basic robotic assembly, which omits an entire layer of human effort to create elements of the building. Of course, these elements still require human assembly, but if architects and builders fully take on Kohlers’ vision, the building design can be simplified so robots can also do some of this assembly.
Automated assembly is not something to expect to see happening on a large scale in the next 20 years, but there’s growing examples of the edge cases of robots doing more kinetic labour. For example, Construction Robotics’ Semi-Autonomous Mason, the Sam100, is currently at work on a handful of building sites across the U.S. It can apply mortar to any size brick and place one every 8.5 seconds. Where a human mason can lay 300-600 bricks in an eight-hour shift, the Sam100 can lay more than 3,000. Videos of Sam100 in action get millions of views on video-sharing platforms, indicating that there is interest and excitement in this topic.
Sam100 joins Hadrian X from Australia’s Fast Brick Robotics, which both 3D print, lay bricks, and can complete the superstructure of a conventional masonry home in just two days. Another interesting example of an advanced construction robot is a robotic hot-wire cutting robot from Danish company Odico, which uses electrically-heated wire to cut through industrial foams, replicating the geometry by a given CAD model. Also, EffiBOT from Effidence in France can follow workers carrying tools and materials. Naturally, there’s hesitancy in any industry about robots automating more workload. Nevertheless, despite the amazing examples described above, robots won’t be building houses in volume for several years. Of course, many positives can easily be identified — such as cost, time and impact on the environment. However, so can some of the cons, where issues like retraining of parts of the workforce do need to be considered critical for long term acceptance and success.
As a surveyor reading about technology like this, I don’t immediately think about the impact on construction projects. Instead, I think what does this automation mean for the survey industry? The good news is that with rising expectations to design better and construct faster, I believe that there will likely be plenty of opportunities for surveying businesses providing services to building construction companies.
If a robot is going to produce an object, accurate sizing information is mandatory. If a robot is going to place something into the correct location on site, accurate position information is required.
Tolerances will be tight, accuracy and precision will be demanded, compromise won’t be an option — and that sounds like the calling card of a surveyor to me.
Whereas a human on a construction site can see a small discrepancy and instinctively know how to handle the problem, I am not convinced a robot would be able to self-solve the issue on-the-fly. Perhaps it would detect the problem and then request human assistance — reducing the efficiency gain that was one of the motivations for using robots in the first place. Undeniably, the best way to maximise the efficiency of robots is by providing them with quality information that truly represents reality.
So, will a survey ever be captured without a human? Well, in some data capture scenarios it can be argued that the role we play has already slightly shifted — for example, shifting from selecting which exact points to measure towards picking an area and density to let the instrument capture. Mainly, this is thanks to the advancements, acceptance and use of technology, like the Leica RTC360 3D laser scanner, or mobile technology, such as the Leica BLK2GO, which automatically capture 3D point clouds as an operator walks through and around a site.
Data collection without a human, maybe - but a survey (including deliverables), no. Yet, we surveyors might have to adjust what it means to be a ‘surveyor’.
What’s Next for Surveyors?
For years surveyors have been valued on deciding where to set up, what control to use, and what checks to build in. More recently, additional emphasis has been put on deciding which technology to use, how to measure, and how to process the data.
For the next generation of surveyors, it seems likely that even more weight will be put on sifting through data, identifying quality, understanding what is relevant, and deciding how to present it.
Maybe the job will have more of an emphasis on determining what checks to build in, or how to evaluate and process data. And most likely, more weight will be put on deciding what data is relevant and how and when to present it.
I believe that now is the right time to be assessing our workflows, evaluating new methodologies, and embracing new technology. We can then establish ourselves as the service providers who produce the best data, the ones who can be trusted to assess and verify the quality of other data, as well as the ones who can extract meaningful results from it all.
If we do this right, we will be in the position to not only protect our own short-term employment future but also to ensure the future of the survey industry — even when we are surveying for construction robots to use our data.