“Can we fix it?,” Bob the Builder screams to his animated army of construction vehicles. For a long time, humans have been guilty of anthropomorphizing its mechanical devices. I mean how many times have you heard Siri tell you a “knock, knock” joke? However, today it is the devices that are laughing at us.
One of the most human forms of labor since the beginning civilization has been building. Now, a team of architects and engineers at the University at Buffalo are designing and programming robots to replace human workers on construction sites. Below is an example of a robotic masonry tool currently deployed in the market:
The University of Buffalo team has prototyped a series of robots called Onsite Construction Robots, or OSCR (below) for short. The latest stands 18 inches tall and weighs a little less than six pounds. It was designed to climb a ladder and carry three bricks. The final prototype, with advanced grippers and powerful motors, will be able to stack five bricks, walk or crawl, and scan the site to track materials.
The four-legged robot would be able to grab a stack of bricks, carry them across a construction site, climb a ladder and deliver materials to the mason, who tells the robot what’s needed and where through a pair of smart glasses that scan the site in 3-D. Information is then transmitted to a developer or architect offsite who monitors the project. However, if OSCR partners with SAM the robotic mason the level of automation will be exponentially heighten.
“The focus is shifting from robotics to co-robotics, where robots work with humans instead of replacing jobs,” said lead developer Michael Silver. “Masons are a skilled class in high demand, but it’s getting harder to find people to support them by doing the difficult work of lugging heavy materials around a site. Our tools will actually advance the mason’s skills and create more time for craft by automating more tedious aspects of the job.”
Another example of robots working alongside humans is at Buffalo Manufacturing Works, where collaborative human robots interact with humans in shared workspaces. The UB research team hopes their bot-and-glasses combination will facilitate more advanced masonry, with masons leveraging the robot’s memory and computing power to increase the complexity with which bricks or stones are arranged.
“We’re moving robots out of the factory and into the field – that’s a huge next step,” Silver said. “By bringing materials, machines and software together, we’re developing new processes for making, and that will change architecture.”
While the research is still in its early stages, it has already garnered support from the American Institute of Architects and the New York State Council on the Arts. The researchers recently progressed to the second phase of the research: the development of “smart glasses” that wirelessly link the mason, robot and offsite simulations that architects, contractors and engineers use to map how a construction project is proceeding in space and time.
It is rumored that Alexander the Great created the secret society of Masons. Now, OSCR and SAM are quickly climbing the masonry ladder to even surpass the 33rd level, to become the ultimate “Grand Botmaster.”