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Is 2020 the year robots take over construction? 

By Charlie Cropp MRICS
August 18, 2020
Here, we are going to look at the overarching trends that will enable a robotic revolution in the construction industry, & the positive outcomes possible.

Robotics are increasingly important to construction. From helping resolve the construction industry skills shortage to driving new possibilities in design, robots will undoubtedly play a role in the future of construction. The question is really — on what scale?

Just to be clear, we don’t think that robots are going to “take over the construction industry”. To quote Balfour Beatty, robotic automation will “[create] new roles for skilled workers”. However, social distancing has driven the adoption of automation technology across the economy. Robotics were already being deployed with greater regularity in construction, and 2020 will likely be a transition year towards a more roboticized future.  

Here, we are going to look at the overarching trends that will enable a robotic revolution in the construction industry, and the positive outcomes that can be achieved.  We’ll also explore how construction professionals can augment their workflows to take advantage of these changes and get prepared for a future working alongside automated colleagues. 


Trend #1: Building Information Modelling (BIM)

In the UK, BIM is now deployed by nearly 70% of construction professionals. Although not all BIM is the same, or equally sophisticated, high levels of adoption do lay the groundwork for better data sharing — data that can be deployed to augment the application of robotic technology. 

Ways BIM upgrades robotic adoption in construction:

Fundamentally, BIM is a database technology. It allows for collaboration between specialists — each enabled to access the relevant construction data in the most appropriate way, when it’s needed. Traditionally, BIM is deployed to aid communication between architectural, engineering and construction teams. However, robots can play a part at each of those stages. 

  • Prefabricated manufacturing: BIM designs have long been used to aid the off-site prefabrication of critical components. The ability to match outputs with sophisticated digital designs creates quality checks. Detailed digital plans can guide robotic manufacturing off-site — accelerating workflows and improving efficiency. 
  • On-site guidance: BIM allows for the creation of detailed, step-by-step plans. These digital schematics can be used as a map for on-site construction bots, and can outline when/and where they are deployed — for both the benefit of robotic teams and on-site human teams. Broadly, this process is known as “Field-to-BIM”. 

How to prepare today:

The main way to get ready to implement BIM-enabled robotics is simply to get familiar with BIM so that you know how to deploy it. The more accurate BIM data that you can get into the system, the more valuable it will be to robotic construction. 

Critical to maximising the effectiveness of your BIM system is to understand the different levels of BIM, and make sure that you are investing in capabilities that actually allow for effective data manipulation. Data-base first BIM can shorten your construction project timelines by 27%, encourage better collaboration and improved workflow efficiency. But BIM washing is real, check out our guide to BIM if you want to dive into the details. 


Trend #2: Improvements to point cloud registration

Point clouds are a powerful way to store detailed spatial information provided by LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) or other reality-capture technologies. The use of point clouds (and surveying tools) has a long history in construction. But the use cases have recently expanded. 

Advances in how point clouds are registered (relating to algorithm improvements and cloud-based registration) have reduced the cost of producing comprehensive point cloud scans. This means that construction teams are able to produce highly-detailed schematics of an environment, at multiple points during construction — aiding planning, cross-checking for errors, and guiding robotic deployments. 

⇒ Download our free guide to cloud-based registration here ⇐


Ways point clouds augment robotic adoption in construction:

Point clouds inform planning by providing millimetre accurate scans of the built environment. Ultimately, they bring 3D modelling in touch with physical space. This is a technology that compliments BIM and is helping drive the application of robotics in a number of different ways: 

  • Scan-to-BIM: The major application of point clouds within construction revolves around BIM. Scan-to-BIM is the use of point cloud scans to inform BIM. This can be done to build the foundations of a model, or update models at each stage of construction — cross-referencing for mistakes. The detail and precision offered by this approach makes BIM an even more valuable guide to robotics.    
  • Cross-referencing outputs: Laser scanning (within a scan-to-BIM workflow) has particular value for cross-referencing outputs with plans. Robotic-driven prefabricated manufacturing can not only be planned with digital models, outputs can be scanned and then compared with planning to ensure accuracy. 
  • Guiding robotics: Although slightly detached from the other applications of point clouds discussed here, it is worth noting that LiDAR is one of several options used as ‘sense technologies’ to guide robots in the field. Advances to point cloud processing are improving the application of this use-case, along with more standard surveying capabilities. 

How to prepare today: 

Further integration of survey technology and processes will be important to the future of construction. Bringing onboard dedicated surveyors as part of a standard construction team can help deploy the technology required to better use reality capture technology to guide robotic adoption. Making sure that you access the right point cloud registration algorithms (and processing tools) is critical to efficiency. Check out our guide to laser scanning software if you want to learn more.  

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Trend #3: 5G connectivity

Network connectivity is critical to paving the way for robots to capture and share live information in the field with off-site premises. To access the benefits of construction robotics, you’ll need to make the most out of 5G — the new generation of global wireless network technology. 

Ways 5G enhances robotic adoption in construction:

5G connectivity makes bandwidth-heavy communication possible. There are near limitless ways that this can improve workflows. But two standout features related to robotics are:  

  • VR assisted vehicles: 5G partnered with VR makes unmanned vehicles possible in the field. Although not fully autonomous, sophisticated remote-controlled vehicles can either act partially autonomously (augmented by a human controller when necessary), or fully controlled. This creates interesting possibilities for allowing workers access to physically dangerous locations, and is a great example of how robots are revolutionising the construction industry by creating new jobs.
  • Aerial drones: Drone-aided land surveying is a huge automation step for the industry that’s only made possible by 5G. The network will make the drones more easily controlled with speed and precision and the live video connection clearer. 5G assisted drones also survey treacherous locations with ease and give teams a real-time feel for what the drones see.

How to prepare today:

5G promises to bring network speeds up to 100mbps, which means that your robots can function speedily and accurately wherever you need them to. 5G rollout isn’t really in the hands of any one company — being a national infrastructure project. 

The main thing you need to do is watch development timelines. Understand where your geography is in terms of 5G rollout and be prepared to change your processes and technology to match. Early adopters will gain a competitive advantage. 


Trend #4: Internet of Things (IoT)

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a system of connected technology. The number of cellular IoT connections is expected to be 4.1 billion by 2024, and the global IoT market is expected to rise to over $1 trillion by the same time.  

IoT delivers contextual information, which can help you guide how robots are deployed. It directs them through a construction site and informs them which maintenance or tasks need to be actioned. Robotics themselves also come under the IoT category, being pieces of technology that capture information and link it back to a network


Ways IoT and robotics can be used in construction:

IoT makes way for the deployment of robots in construction thanks to its advancing technology and normalisation in society and industry spheres. There are three key ways how IoT is making way for more automated construction robotics:

  • Low-cost sensor technology: The introduction of IoT sensors at a smaller price means that robots and machinery can be connected to analytics software, which makes broader integration of robots possible. 
  • Improved latency: IoT supports faster data inputs from robots to software, meaning that robots will have more unlimited movement in the field. 
  • Investment: The projection that companies will invest up to a huge $1.1 trillion in IoT by 2023 means that we can look forward to an increased ability to deploy robots into the construction industry. With so much investment pumping into research and development, we can be sure that more robots will be brought into action over the next few years. 

Thanks to the advancement of IoT, we have seen (and will continue to see) the creation of advanced robotics that benefit construction work in the field. A number of these opportunities augment human workflows, including: 

  • Sensor-based body wearables: These sensors are worn by construction workers on-site and are designed to reduce injury cases by warning workers of dangerous zones, faulty pieces of equipment, or moving self-driving trucks. They also track vital organ function to warn an employee of possible exhaustion and tell emergency workers of the time of a sustained injury.
  • Data monitoring sensors and actors:  Attaching sensors to machines means that you can identify performance issues with equipment and repair it before it breaks down. These IoT sensors are also placed on bins and skips to allow waste teams to monitor on-site rubbish levels and to know when it’s the appropriate time to collect the waste.
  • Google Glass: Google’s smart glasses are a great way for workers to visualise the project they’re working towards and achieve accurate completion through a VR experience. They confirm installation locations, present correct drawings and keep workers on schedule. 

How to prepare today:

IoT technology is imperative to construction because IoT robotics solve important issues like waste management, employee safety on-site, and high construction costs. Advanced and ever-evolving technology provides intelligent and impactful outcomes in multiple areas of construction. It’s no surprise, then, that over 80% of industrial manufacturing companies use or plan to use IoT devices. 

Incorporating IoT into your construction processes will upgrade your deployment of robots. But no matter how you plan to do that, don’t forget that you’ll also need to employ a good data centre to partner with your IoT tools. Again, BIM and 5G can play an important role here, and reality capture technology can help you better contextualise your IoT data.  


The future of construction

Yes, robots will play a part in the future of construction, but they won’t be replacing human labour.  New construction robotics generally support human labour, including advancing the safety of workers in the field. With automation robotics providing collision avoidance and operation in dangerous environments, they’ll actually be protecting labourers and expanding building opportunities in unchartered territory. 

BIM, point cloud registration, 5G and IoT are some of the trends to keep your eyes on so that you can more easily adopt robotics into your engineering, construction and surveying to elevate your workflows and assist your workers. 

It’s normal to panic about a sci-fi inspired future run by metal humans that push us out of our much-needed roles. But you can rest assured that robotics will only be adding value and job opportunities to your work in the future. Making sure that you prepare for that future is the best use of your time today.  

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Tags: Robotics