Technology is providing the building blocks of the future

9th May 2016
Joe Bush

The dirty, dusty and noisy environment of a busy building site is perhaps the last place you’d expect to find the latest technology innovations. Indeed, the majority of fundamental building tools haven’t really changed that much since mankind developed the ability to create them. However, the high-tech buildings and cities of tomorrow are being designed and constructed by equally revolutionary technology.

The birdseye view offered by cameras attached to drones could prove invaluable in enhancing logistics on building sites, making changes to plans and monitoring deliveries. A long time challenge of construction sites has been real time awareness – making sure the right people are where they need to be, ensuring tasks are completed on time, and making sure that it is done correctly to avoid down-time. The view offered by a drone can provide site leaders with real time information that can lead to projects being finished faster and on budget.

Furthermore, a US company called Skycatch is providing drones to Japanese construction company Komatsu. The company’s home country of Japan has an ageing population which has left Komatsu with a labour shortage of younger workers with the skills capable of operating its machines. In addition, with one eye on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, there is genuine concern that the construction that will result from hosting this major event will encounter serious problems. With this in mind Komatsu has created its Smart Construction service where a fleet of drones guide fully robotic construction vehicles. The drones map an area of the site in 3D and update the data in real time to track how the massive volumes of soil and cement are moving around the site.

Komatsu has in fact been experimenting with autonomous dump trucks, bulldozers and excavators for some time, however, the company found that these machines lacked the ability to see and understand the environment around them with enough precision. With Skycatch the company has been able to dramatically reduce the margin for error involved in mapping an area of the site, as well as the time it takes.

Victoria Julian, Superintendent of US construction company, DPR, commented: “I use the Skycatch data on the site daily if not hourly. We can take the Skycatch plan, colour code it, mark it up, label it and use it for logistics planning - daily, weekly, monthly - whatever we need. It’s really an incredible tool that I don’t want to have to do without on the next big project.”

Despite being based in the US, Skycatch is focusing its business almost entirely in Japan, as CEO Christian Sanz explained: “The regulations in the US make it difficult to operate in a fully autonomous manner, and so that makes it tough to get the full value out of drones.” Sanz also explained that not every country is facing such dramatic labour shortages, and as such there is a clear recognition and appreciation of the work these drones can do in Japan, whereas in other places, people are still cautious about collaborating with robots to do jobs that were typically handled by humans.

A video demonstrating Skycatch data capture can be viewed below.

3D printing

To help cut the time and cost of building construction (which will be key as the world’s population continues to rapidly grow), 3D printing could be used, and a team at Loughborough University has been developing a concrete printer for around the last ten years. A robotic arm recently employed on the printer further cuts printing time (up to ten times faster), and can create a variety of forms and shapes.

The team have developed computer controlled 3D printers that precisely deposit successive layers of high performance concrete to form complex structural components - such as curved cladding panels and architectural features - that cannot be manufactured by conventional processes.

The technique also facilitates the inclusion of increasingly complex building services infrastructure from the outset instead of time consuming and costly on-site retro-fitting.

Laying the foundations of the future

Fastbrick Robotics (pictured) has been working for about a decade to refine a bricklaying robot. It has the capability to work continuously (as long as it is fed with bricks), and can place 1,000 bricks an hour based on a CAD drawing. This works out the shell of a new house every two or three days.

Another system that has been used successfully for autonomous construction is a ‘concrete jet’, which is similar to a 3D printing gantry that has the capability to make walls. Called Contour Crafting, this fabrication technology was developed at the University of Southern California, and its creators estimate that construction using this system could reduce costs by 80%, and the creators also claim that it could potentially complete the structure of a 2,000ft2 house in under 24 hours.

With these and similar announcements, some may well lambast the news and claim that this will only lead to the loss of human jobs. However, there is another machine that has been developed to specifically work with their human counterparts rather than against them. The SAM (semi-automated mason) is responsible for picking up bricks applying mortar, and placing them, while a human partner handles the more delicate tasks such as laying bricks for corners, tidying up the mortar and setting up the worksite.

Scot Peters, Co-founder of the company that designed SAM, said: “In construction, your design will say that a window is located exactly 30ft from the corner of a building, and in reality when you get to the building, nothing is ever where it says it’s supposed to be. Masons know how to adapt to that, so we had to design a robot that knows how to do that too.”

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