November 7, 2012
Robots will help build the future
Construction Corner | Korky Koroluk
The strides that have been made in the development of robots have been immense during the last two or three years.
Military forces see a need for robots for missions that are simply too dangerous for humans. Search and rescue organizations need robots to send into collapsed structures, again because it is often too dangerous for human searchers. And space programs are finding uses for robots for simple, repetitive tasks that don’t need a lot of training.
Now DARPA—the United States Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency — is staging a competition it hopes will yield robots that can work alongside humans at the scene of a disaster, doing many things that a human can, but which — so far — are beyond the capability of robots.
These are not necessarily difficult. They’re simply difficult for machines that don’t yet have human dexterity.
It includes opening a door by using the handle or doorknob, for example, or climbing a ladder.
Anyone curious about the direction new technologies might take can often get a preview by what the armed forces are doing.
Some of the biggest, early strides in developing energy-efficient communities were taken by the U.S. military on bases around the country, and, increasingly, abroad. Some of the earliest work on alternative jet fuels was financed by the military.
Certainly, there is lots of room for robots in the construction industry.
There is already any number of purpose-built robots for the demolition sector, although these are not autonomous machines. Instead, they are tethered to a remote-control panel carried by an operator just two or three metres away. Robots are also used for interior inspections of pipes of all sorts. Is there any reason why robots couldn’t tie rebar? Or install roofing membranes? Or trowel newly poured floor slabs?
There are lots of robots under development, including robotic backhoes that can load trucks without human intervention, and climbing robots used for painting or for spraying insulation in awkward locations.
Don’t overlook roadbuilders, who can now buy GPS-based systems that allow robotic graders to work within grade tolerances of just a centimetre or two.
Not much has been written about it, but one of the crew members on the International Space Station is called simply Robonaut.
It’s been up there for a while now, helping human astronauts with things like sampling air flows and quality in the station’s life-support system.
It’s a relatively mindless task that involves standing in front of a vent, measuring the airflow, and taking and analyzing an air sample.
You don’t need an astronaut’s training for that.
But NASA and DARPA want more.
They are working on a next-generation Robonaut, which is dexterous enough to use many of the tools the astronauts use. For now, Robonaut can only use tools that are specially designed for it. Human astronauts have their own tools, but with shipping expensive and storage space scarce, it would be nice if an astronaut and Robonaut could use the same tools. There is even talk of one day being able to send Robonaut out on a spacewalk to do some of the tasks that are now done by astronauts.
The U.S. defence department wants one day to have robots that can handle steering, accelerating and braking from the driver’s seat of a vehicle.
That would mean increased dexterity, of course, but also making judgement calls, which in turn means sophisticated artificial intelligence.
Enough progress has already been made to give us hope that one day somewhere down the line, robotics will emerge as a mature technology that is ready for use in the civilian world as contractors and others look for ways to work better and faster. The present DARPA competition runs through to the end of 2014.
Korky Koroluk is a regular freelance contributor to the Journal of Commerce. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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