Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Five Construction Technologies

The Cutting Edge No. 3

In this edition of The Cutting Edge five construction technologies are covered: remote operated dozers, 3D printed excavator parts, a cheap concrete printed house for developing countries, an inspection drone, and a bricklaying robot. What these technologies have in common is their actual and potential for autonomous operation.

Every three years a giant construction and agricultural machinery show is held in the US, featuring the latest in giant machines like cranes, excavators, mobile road plants and so on. At this year’s CONEXPO-CON/AGG & IFPE show there were a lot of first generation smart machines, with more sensors and improved digital control systems. These all work with a person in control, at what is now thought of as level 1 automation. No level 2 machines as yet, which would be capable of operating without human control but with a human in the loop. However, there were demonstrations of a couple of interesting frontier technologies at the show and this post starts with them.

Remote Operated Dozers

One was from industry heavyweight Caterpillar, who have developed serious capability in autonomous mining and haulage systems. They have a system called Cat COMMAND. There is a portable version, to be worn around the neck of the operator while outside the machine, or a COMMAND station for an operator, that provides screens and wireless control of the machinery. An operator in the COMMAND station can monitor and run multiple machines.

The demonstrations of their remote-control digger at CONEXPO was on a system that allows an operator to work from 1,400 miles away:

Cat COMMAND was initially launched in 2016 with RemoteTask, as a remote control system exclusive to Cat Skid Steers and limited to a 1,000 foot wireless radius. After substantial progress, with the new system for remote controlled dozers and excavators operators can remotely operate machinery from long distances. Australian companies like BHP and Riotinto are at the forefront of long distance automated mining, and tech company RCT provides a system for their remotely operated mining machinery and equipment.

It seems very likely that the mining and agricultural robots under development could quickly spillover to building and construction. An example might be the Dot Power Platform, a farm-bot that can change tools to do 100 different jobs. The farmer uses a remote control to position Dot alongside the tool attachment, such as a seeder, then four hydraulic arms hoist and secure the apparatus to the machine. That sort of flexibility would be important on construction sites.

3D Printed Excavator Parts

A combination of industry, academic and government partners collaborated to create the first functional excavator using 3D-printed components, called Project AME (for additive manufactured excavator). The machine’s cab, boom, and heat exchanger were 3D-printed at CONEXPO. Using low-cost steel, the seven-foot-long, 400-pound boom was printed in five days, while the carbon fibre cab was printed in five hours. The design contest for university student teams was won by five students from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, who feature in the video.


In this context the 3d printers developed by Australian company Aurora Labs are interesting. These also print metal components, unlike the resin and plastic products produced by most conventional printers, and with Worley Parsons will be trialled in the mining industry for onsite production of replacement parts and components, using a database of specifications from manufacturers. They have a Small Format Printer on sale globally, and a Large Format Printer under development.

3D Printed Concrete House

While on 3D printing, US company ICON has developed a concrete printing technology, and in March 2018 built a prototype house to US housing standards, in Austin, Texas. This may become the first mass-production version of concrete printing to become widely used, because it is the outcome of a partnership between ICON and charity New Story, developed specifically for underserved populations.

New Story, a Y Combinator backed start-up, is a non-profit focused on providing safe homes for families living in slums around the globe. In three years they have funded 1,400 and built more than 850 homes, in Haiti, El Salvador, Mexico, and Bolivia. To provide higher quality homes faster at a lower cost New Story partnered with ICON to create the first 3D home printer. The printer is designed to work under the constraints that are common in the places New Story works, where power can be unpredictable, clean water is not guaranteed and technical assistance is sparse.

The printer uses a computer-programmed spout, attached to a 3D printer set on tracks, to extrude concrete that hardens. It builds a house (the shell of it, minus the roof) in under 24 hours, for less than USD$4000 (AUD$5000). The 56-74 square metre homes are constructed with near zero waste, with workers coming in to add doors, windows, roofing, wiring and plumbing to the shell. Each house can be put together by two to four workers.

Inspection Drone

Following the previous Cutting Edge on drones in construction comes a track-mounted inspection drone designed to crawl around a site. Using lidar-equipped robots, Doxel scans a construction site every day to monitor how things are progressing, tracking what gets installed and whether it’s the right thing at the right time in the right place. Lidar measures distances with lasers, and the robot scans following prescheduled paths, including stairs, and can cover about 30,000 square meters a week.

Doxel combines the large amount of data it is collecting with deep-learning techniques, with a focus on interpreting the data they collect, so the robots are an efficient and cost effective way to get it. Once the robot is finished it sends the data to the cloud and Doxel’s 3D ‘semantic deep-learning algorithms’ go to work. These have been trained to recognize all kinds of components, even if only a bit of them is visible, based on shape, location, and size. The accuracy of the lidar map created allows them to verify that the right things have been installed correctly and exactly. If they have, Doxel can quantify that progress, and if they haven’t an alert goes to the project manager. The company is also using drones, but in a limited capacity because they require human supervision. Doxel is a US startup that recently had a USD$4.5 million funding round.

Bricklaying Robot

There have been a number of bricklaying robots over the last few years, typically running on a track laid beside the wall, like this one .

Australian company Fastbrick Robotics is developing a stabilised, truck mounted system with a single long arm that lays bricks up to 20 meters away. They made a demonstration model in 2015, and in 2017 Caterpillar invested USD$2 million in the company, with an option to invest another $8 million. The money will be used for development of the Hadrian X prototype, which will ‘print’ structures layer by layer using glue and engineered blocks. The structure does not require steel tie-ins and all door and window openings, and service points, are built in as the robot follows the design in the CAD file it is working from. Their key technology breakthrough appears to be the ability to stabilize the truck platform and movement of the arm so placement of the bricks is accurate and consistent. 


Previous Cutting Edge Posts were:
No. 1. Oct 2016.  New construction technology
No. 2. Dec. 2016.  Use of drones in construction

For posts with more examples of new technologies and the firms developing them see: