On March 3rd, TechCrunch had industry experts and their audience talking about “Robotics+AI 2020” in several sessions at UC Berkeley. Among them was a panel dedicated to sharing insights and experience with robotics in the construction industry. The session “Building The Robots that Build” featured the following expert speakers on stage:
- Brian Ringley of Boston Dynamics: The world leading company in development of mobile robots, including Spot, that is being used for various tasks on construction sites.
- Daniel Blank of Toggle: The company is using robotics to build reinforced concrete off-site.
- Tessa Lau of Dusty Robotics: They are building robotics technology to automate layout services in the field.
- Noah Ready-Campbell of Built Robotics: The company enables robotics technology upgrades for heavy equipment to turn them into autonomous machines.
Keeping it short and sweet, the panel was only 30 minutes long but provided many valuable real-world insights into how robotics and AI are finding their place in construction. Here are our biggest takeaways.
Construction Site Complexity Presents Both Challenges and Opportunities for Robotics
Even a small construction site is a complicated environment. All the panelists acknowledged that the construction industry is very unique in its complexity.
Traditional robotics automation technology used in factories has a controlled environment built around it. Moving it into a human environment, where you can’t control the conditions, poses new challenges. Robots that are on-site must factor in the complexities and continually changing conditions without compromising the ability to perform the task.
Ringley of Boston Dynamics talked about how the autonomy of the robots translates into real-world value and ROI for the users. Spot is designed specifically to go onto a complex construction site with the ability to autonomously adapt to its constantly changing environment. The less the technology is hindered by things like human interaction, environmental conditions, or hour-by-hour site changes, the bigger the impact it will have.
At the same time, robotics technology can help to remove some of the complexity. For example, Toggle is using their technology to manufacture offsite and minimize the moving parts onsite. The panelists also talked about the importance of safety on a complex construction site. Robots have a role to play to not only take on high-risk tasks but to also perform actions in a way that reduces the possibility of errors or mistakes that compromise projects or safety.
“The value that robots are bringing is that we’re regularizing what is normally done by people […] because robots are autonomous, and they have a fixed set of actions that they’ll do in a fixed order,” said Lau of Dusty Robotics.
Construction Could See Countless Purpose-Specific Technologies, but They Need to Work Together
The panelists were asked if they anticipate a single robotics technology platform to dominate. They all agreed that it was unlikely. Construction is a highly diverse industry with different trades and different processes happening during different stages and at different locations. To establish a single robotics platform to meet all the needs on a construction site would be incredibly difficult and unlikely. What’s rather more likely is many purpose-driven technologies that will meet the unique needs of a specific function or role in the industry. Just like every trade or person on a site is doing something different, so do the robots.
However, as the use of robotics increases on-site, the need for them to communicate effectively will require some form of a common language, network, and feedback loops. “I think it’s going to take all these types of robots and more. And furthermore, that they’re going to have to be able to work together and network in more intelligent ways to distribute tasks,” said Ringley of Boston Dynamics.
You don’t have to look further than two of the panelists to get a very basic sense of why this is important: If a Spot robot is on-site using a 360° camera and HoloBuilder Reality Capture technology to capture site conditions and the Dusty Robotics layout robots are also on-site to mark the site layout details, communicating information between the two can make them both function better. Even from a simple scheduling perspective so that the site is captured after the layout is marked for example. Or, data about site conditions could be relayed from Spot to the Dusty Robotics tech to accommodate for their tasks.
Investment in Construction Robotics Will Hinge on Investors Becoming Educated About the Construction Industry
The panel shared their experience when working with investors that have no relationship to construction and it became clear that many VCs and technology investors are outside their comfort zone when it comes to the construction industry. The complexity and diversity of the different trades and functions are hard to understand for an outsider. They may not understand the investment potential for a technology that is distinctly designed for an on-site function for example.
However, the panelist did recognize that investors are paying attention. The size of the construction industry is appealing even though it involves more capital intensive projects than they may be used to. Overall, it was agreed that once dedicated technology VCs or investors start to look deeper into the industry to understand it even better, they’ll be able to evaluate the construction tech opportunities.
Better, Faster, Cheaper Still Rules the Day
When asked about their customers, the panelists cut to the chase. There’s no room for novelty when it comes to KPIs and robots in the construction industry: Regardless of the technology put before them, construction companies remain focused on getting projects completed safely, on time, and within budget. Automating a manual, highly repetitive task to free up their staff’s time for more important work and to make sure that things can be done better, faster, or cheaper speaks to their ROI. If the technology has upstream and downstream applications as well — all the better. Robotics technologies that can help them do that will find a place in the industry. Those that don’t, won’t.
The TechCrunch panel was an exciting one, even if you’re not part of the robotics industry (you can watch the full recording here if you like). Talking about robotics technology for construction — which is plagued by a lack of skilled workers and notoriously slow to adopt innovation — is an exciting glimpse into today’s early adopters and the mainstream of the future. If these panelists are an indication of the talent looking to solve construction problems with robotics, it’s clear that the complexity of the industry isn’t a barrier, it’s a challenge they’re eager to accept.
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