It's difficult to imagine construction without machines. Backhoes, bulldozers, cranes, dump trucks: The machines that do the heavy lifting are among the first things we imagine when we think of a construction site. But this wasn't always the case. Construction machinery as we know it is a relatively recent addition to the building environment, and it has allowed us to create bigger, taller, and more complex structures with every passing generation. It stands to reason then that advancements in "smart" machines and autonomous engineering will lead to a built environment we can't currently imagine.
Certain trades are already benefitting from advancements in machinery. SAM, the bricklaying robot, does not function with full autonomy, but works alongside traditional masons to eliminate some of the heavy lifting and allow the human workers to focus on the more detail-oriented labor. Similarly, 3D printing is changing views on how buildings are constructed as well as the materials used. A recently completed house in China used relatively inexpensive, locally sourced concrete, eliminating the need for that material to be transported to the construction site. In fact, as 3D printers and printing methods improve, material transport is likely to become minimal, and in some cases, even non-existent.
Aside from improving speed and labor costs, new machinery can be a boon for safety on-site. Drones outfitted with proper cameras can get visuals in places that are too high or too dangerous for human workers. Likewise, GPS-enabled sensors can give workers a visual, digital account of where all other workers and equipment are on a site at any given time. Construction Dive reports that with this type of tech, "job site superintendents can mark hazardous areas or safety zones via tablet. Once activated, safety zones can trigger wearable warnings, including flashing lights or audible alarms integrated into worker safety vests, to provide a location awareness alert." Not only does this reduce the risk to human life, but it has the potential to reduce site insurance costs – a benefit to both the contractor and the client.
A drone surveys a construction site while a worker oversees from a tablet. (Source: Fortune)
Naturally, all new technology comes with a hefty price tag, but as the technology continues to grow and its adoption spreads, the price inevitably becomes less prohibitive. 3D printing, laser scanning, and drones have seen that price reduction in recent years. There are already artificial intelligence (AI) programs available on open source platforms, and The Wall Street Journal reports that the impending "democratization of AI" will make the technology more readily available. Companies like Autodesk are already using computational systems to revolutionize the design process.
Any transition from partial to full autonomy won't be a quick one. Complications are inherent to any jobsite, and require special safety measures and greater capacity for deep learning in software-controlling construction equipment. A recent piece in Construction Dive details the many ways in which machine learning is currently aiding the construction industry, as well as the many hurdles that must be overcome before anything resembling full autonomy is feasible. Still, as automakers race to make roads autonomous, progress is sure to find its way to the jobsite in due time.
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