Change is just a drone away

This Issue This is a part of the Technology feature

By - , Build 152

Change is all around us as technology advances at speed. One thing is for sure, the way buildings are conceived and constructed, and who puts them up, is being turned on its head.

3D printed structure at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

ROBOTS AND DRONES as part of the site workforce and buildings fabricated by 3D printers are the future of the construction industry. If these new technologies sound fanciful at the moment, you are in for a surprise – it’s happening around the world right now.

What’s there and will soon be here?

In New Zealand, the push for new construction technology is happening firstly in universities and innovative digital fabrication workshops. Those leading the way have clear aims that our industry will be quick to adopt digital technology to build better houses faster and more economically.

In the US and Europe, there’s plenty of examples of these newly emerged technologies, and with the fast pace of uptake these days, some are already here.

3D printed building components

In September 2015, the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee unveiled a 12 × 4 m 3D-printed building. The building demonstrates how a 3D-printed wall structure of single composite material can integrate all functions for structure, insulation, air barrier and exterior cladding.

This approach could lead to reduced material consumption and buildings that can be ground up and reprinted for new uses.

3D printed structure at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Digital fabrication for building components

In 2014, the Landesgartenschau Exhibition Hall in Germany was pieced together using 243 50 mm-thick plywood panels – each of which was geometrically unique. The panels were cut on a 7-axis CNC machine and precisely finished by a robot arm. Each panel has finger joints that were interlocked during on-site construction – with a total of 7,600 joints fitted together.

Absolute precision of the fabrication enabled the pieces to be connected without difficulty.

Drones for surveying and mapping

Drones are well established site workers for performing surveying and mapping tasks on construction sites. Construction machinery maker Komatsu has teamed up with San Francisco-based Skycatch to enable drones to conduct ongoing surveys and produce 3D models of worksites.

Survey data feeds into live interactive maps of the site, giving continuous real-time displays of what is being built. These displays can be checked against plans or used to make measurements of completed structures.

Drones for building

The next step for drones will be actually lending a hand by autonomously carrying materials around worksites. It is currently possible to build drones large enough to carry meaningful payloads, but they become cumbersome and lose their essential agility. Latest thinking has small drones working together to share the load and lift more.

A recent project by Swiss architects Gramazio & Kohler and Italian roboticist Raffaello D’Andrea saw 50 flying drones build a structurally stable, 183 cm tower out of 1,500 small blocks. Multiple motion-capture sensors fed information into a fleet management programme that organised the drones, avoiding collisions and opting for best-case paths for fast payload pickup and release.

In New Zealand, drones have been used to survey earthquake damage both above affected suburbs and inside landmark buildings such as the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Christchurch.

Robot demolition

Demolition does not require the complexity and precision of construction, and robots are already active on site.

Sweden’s ERO Concrete Recycling Robot uses water jets to reduce concrete into aggregate slush that is suctioned away, leaving behind the steel rebar that can be recycled. The robots can scan a site environment and collectively determine the most time-effective deconstruction sequence.

Robot bricklayer

The Hadrian robot of Perth-based Fastbrick Robotics can lay up to 1,000 bricks per hour and construct an entire detached house within 2 days. A commercial version of the machine is expected to be on the market at the end of 2016.

Using a 3D CAD representation of the home, it loads, cuts, routes and places the bricks in sequence using a 28 m telescopic boom. Mortar is delivered under pressure to the head of the boom. For precise placement, the boom auto-corrects itself 1,000 times per second to prevent vibrations or sway. It currently runs off an excavator, but the finished version will sit on a small truck for easy movement across the site.

Maintenance robots

Beyond construction, robots are being developed for maintenance work on city streets.

In the UK, the University of Leeds is pioneering a $9 billion project to create a suite of robots and drones that live within cities. Some robots under development will perch like birds and repair streetlights. Others will live in utility pipes while performing never-ending inspection, repair and reporting tasks.

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Progress in New Zealand

The University of Auckland’s Dermott McMeel is a researcher in design and digital media and part of the AEC Futures think tank that is looking at how new technology can best fit the local industry.

Focus on digital fabrication

New Zealand’s focus is primarily on digital fabrication, a field we are ideally suited to. ‘Our high-value manufacturing, CNC tooling and automation punches above its weight,’ Dermott says.

‘For example, we have world-class fabrication talent in the marine industry. Digital fabrication for construction requires these same skills, and yacht fabricators are contacting me to see how they can contribute to the building industry.’

Fabricators are setting up

Dermott says digital fabrication also fits with our national DIY ethos, which is seeing the growth of small digital fabrication companies that have the initiative to trial and develop industry solutions.

‘People are gearing up for this. We have a number of digital fabricators setting themselves up for timber fabrication for houses. Some are developing steel fabrication processes and are already selling product overseas.

‘They know they have a solution for better, cheaper houses that will be built faster. Architects I know have bought 3D printers to experiment with, simply to be prepared for the near future.’

Approvals process needs looking at

Of course, realisation of a new construction process relies on its accommodation in legislation and building codes, which is yet to happen. ‘The overall process needs to be looked at, as currently, a digitally fabricated house will be categorised as an Alternative Solution for approvals,’ Dermott says. ‘This has challenges, and we may benefit from a new legislative approach.

‘In Germany, for example, companies test new materials and fabrication in an open environment with data freely available to the industry. Regulatory authorities follow their work, making it easy for them to assess and accept.’

Solutions from National Science Challenge

Dermott McMeel says the government’s current National Science Challenge Building Better Homes, Towns and Cities will provide ideas for materials and processes that will be presented to local authorities to act on.

It seems that, while robot construction workers are unlikely to be prominent, we can expect digital fabrication to be significant in our near future.

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3D printed structure at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.