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Can Robots Replace Tradies?

Credit: koya979/adobe

Credit: koya979/adobe

By George Quezada

To what extent will intelligent robots transform the construction industry within the next 20 years?

Over the past few months I’ve been working with Construction Skills Queensland to develop future scenarios out to 2036. We examined the major trends and how they may play out for jobs and skills in Queensland’s construction industry. The stand-out issue for me is the prospect of robots replacing human labour.

It’s a provocative thought. I can’t help but imagine a future of “C3POs” where most (if not all) of the dangerous, difficult and dull tasks are handled by highly intelligent robots. Around-the-clock they lift, fit and bolt our infrastructure and buildings together, perhaps even commissioning and maintaining them as well.

This notion both excites and terrifies me. I own a robot vacuum cleaner (I can’t remember the last time I personally vacuumed) and I value the ease that it’s brought to keeping my house clean. I live on acreage, and I’m currently sizing up a robotic lawn mower…

But will all this technology evolve to something resembling the droid army of Star Wars? Can robots replace humans? I’m not sure.

I’m not here to offer the “right” answer or make an argument either way, but to prompt a more important question: what would it take for the construction industry to thrive in a high-tech future?

Machines Don’t Think

Roboticists make a clear distinction between machines, robots and smart robots. This distinction is tricky and not always clear-cut. Machines, like a car, carry out tasks under the direct control of humans. Robots, on the other hand, can be programmed to operate without direct control, responding in a set way to commands and changes in their environment – think autonomous vehicles.

Add artificial intelligence (AI) into the mix, and you’ve got yourself a smart robot that can think and make judgements based on pre-programmed goals that may be updated by a human master. The auto equivalent could be something like “KITT”, the super-intelligent car assistant from the 1980s TV hit series Knight Rider (I loved that show).

But which level of technology will dominate by 2036? Let’s take a look at some recent technological developments.

The Machine World

Perhaps the easiest future to imagine is one where (not very bright) robots and humans work together, or where humans simply work with better machines and tools. Based on the technology available today it’s foreseeable that, by 2036, many aspects of construction could be carried out in factories and delivered to the construction site for quick assembly by either humans or robots.

In this future scenario humans are not obsolete, but the number employed directly in the industry will likely have dwindled. Jobs will be more knowledge-intensive, like robotics engineers and technicians. However, far more jobs will be picked up in new industries that produce, program and service these robotic systems.

Robotic technology could arrive on-site through 3D printing. This is already being demonstrated by a robotics team at the University of Southern California, whose “contour crafting” technique involves robotic arms that travel on tracks and extrude a concrete mix layer-by-layer.

What’s exciting about this technology is the speed and flexibility of the system. It offers scope to create organic shapes that are unimaginable with traditional poured concrete methods and require a fraction of the time and material. The creator of contour crafting, Behrokh Khoshnevis, has high hopes that this technology can help address the need for affordable high-performance buildings and housing, especially in developing countries.

Another group, MX3D in The Netherlands, is developing 3D printers of steel and has ambitions to build large structures like bridges.

However, I don’t expect that humans will disappear from an industry dominated by 3D printers. New jobs will be needed to deploy, service and maintain the equipment, and existing trades may be needed to finish the structures. Many more jobs could emerge in creative design to help home and asset owners explore the exciting opportunities of 3D printing.

What makes the machine world plausible for construction isn’t just the leaps we’ve seen in advanced manufacturing, but also breakthroughs in the realm of exoskeleton technology. We’ve seen this foreshadowed for some time in sci-fi action films like Aliens, The Matrix and more recently Edge of Tomorrow.

The US and Japan are world leaders in this field, and the technology is not new. Japanese firm Cyberdyne has been producing its Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL) suit since the early 1990s, largely for medical applications. The latest iteration of HAL “reads” bioelectric signals that are created by the brain when it wants the body to move. Such refined human–machine control makes the movement of mechanical limbs intuitive and effortless, allowing operators great precision and less physical strain when handling heavy tools.

A collaboration of neuroscientists in the Walk Again Project is taking this idea a step further by developing brain–machine interface technology that will read and interpret “brain storms” to move a mechanical suit. This technology was famously demonstrated in 2014 by a paraplegic Brazilian who took the first kick of the soccer World Cup.

While this seamless partnership between humans and machines may be years away, very impressive powered and unpowered suits are being mass-produced today. Panasonic has commenced commercial production of their exosuit, the Assist Suit AWN 03, for the Japanese market to help workers with heavy lifting and walking tasks in warehousing, health and aged care. These devices can lift up to 15 kg.

Japan’s massive ageing population is driving demand for machine-assistive technologies so that older workers can stay employed and injury-free. Lockheed Martin in the US has developed an unpowered suit, the FORTIS Exoskeleton, specifically for workers that operate heavy tools and machinery. FORTIS is being sold to the US military at the moment, and it’s not clear when the technology will be available to civilians.

The machine world scenario promises the inspirational prospect of men, women and the disabled working alongside each other as equals, with better tools and robot assistance.

The Smart Robot World

Now take those amazing mechanical suits, replace the human with “strong” artificial intelligence (AI) and there’s your smart robot. So who’s making big plays in this technology? The Japanese government and automakers are backing a smart robot future to address labour shortages associated with an ageing population.

Toyota has recently announced a $1 billion investment in R&D focusing on artificial intelligence and robotics to boost its “partner robot technology”, which has been under development for over 15 years. Honda’s own humanoid robot project, ASIMO, is more advanced with 30 years of development. The current prototype is considered the world’s most advanced humanoid robot with world-leading physical agility, balance and dexterity, including the ability to run at 9 km/h, hop, walk up stairs and uneven surfaces (it actually looks like a creeping ninja when it walks and runs), and fairly sophisticated artificial intelligence to recognise faces and respond to basic commands.

However, when confronted with physically complex situations, such as the Fukushima nuclear disaster, ASIMO was not up to the task. The disaster site was too hazardous due to high radiation, obstacles and unstable ground.

Fukushima triggered renewed efforts in Japan and also the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop advanced humanoid robots for emergency response. DARPA launched a worldwide competition to accelerate development of advanced humanoid robots that can handle a disaster environment. Known as the DARPA Robotics Challenge, entrants were tasked with developing humanoid robots that can perform eight tasks:

  1. Drive a vehicle.
  2. Walk over rubble.
  3. Remove obstacles.
  4. Open doors.
  5. Use tools to break walls.
  6. Climb ladders.
  7. Turn valves.
  8. Make repairs.

With US$4 million up for grabs, the world’s top roboticists (mostly from Japan, the US and South Korea) swung into action to develop emergency-ready robots, and last year a few teams actually succeeded in developing robots that could complete all eight tasks. However, these robots remain slow and clunky, and are no match for the Fukushima disaster zone.

It doesn’t seem plausible that these robots (or future versions) could replace humans on a construction site anytime soon. What’s missing is the fluidity of physical movement and communication that makes us humans extraordinarily adaptable and creative. Even if these robots were to evolve into a super sophisticated humanoid labour force, many will raise questions of safety and reliability. The first accident involving a construction robot may stall the whole enterprise for many years.

It’s worth adding that Google recently joined the smart robot race. Under the helm of its engineering director Ray Kurtzweil, Google has has been buying up many of the world’s top AI and robotics companies. As a world renowned (and respected) inventor and tech prophet, Kurtzweil is very bullish about the future of artificial intelligence, believing that AI will exceed human intelligence by 2029.

Do we need robots to be flawless on job sites? Perhaps not. It might be enough to simplify the job environment to a point where robots with modest AI capability can safely outperform humans. That’s what advanced manufacturing effectively does.

What Does This Mean for the Construction Industry?

Massive change is afoot. Many of these changes are welcome, as everyone wants better tools that make jobs safer and more productive. However, some surprises might be in the works as AI and smart robot technology creep up and potentially displace many of today’s jobs.

What will the headlines say about Queensland’s construction industry in 2036? Will we read of triumph or tragedy? More jobs and opportunity, or less?

In the 21st century, foresight isn’t an abstract exercise. It’s a survival tool for developing long-term strategic plans and making better decisions in an era of disruptive technologies. It really doesn’t matter whether it’s clever machines or smart robots that will be joining us – we need to start planning regardless.

How will your business ensure it’s thriving in 2036? Start the conversation now to make sure you’re ready for the future.


George Quezada is a Research Scientist at CSIRO.