Published March 12, 2015
A brickmason’s craft is to study plans, measure and cut bricks and stones, and then lay the materials with hairline precision to form stable, well designed structures. But the highly skilled trade also involves hauling heavy materials, often while scaling ladders and scaffolding.
Now imagine the brick mason has an assistant – a four-legged robot – that can grab a stack of bricks, carry them across the construction site, climb a ladder and deliver the materials to the mason. The mason tells the robot exactly what and where materials are needed through a pair of “smart glasses” that 3d scan the site. This information is then transmitted offsite to the developer or architect monitoring the project.
This isn’t the stuff of science fiction, but the research of a team of architects and engineers at the University at Buffalo. Michael Silver, assistant professor of architecture and self-made roboticist, and Karthik Dantu and Nils Napp, both assistant professors of computer science and engineering, are mid-way through a multi-year initiative to design, build and program a suite of tools that would not only improve the life of the mason but break new ground for architecture and robotics.
The team has prototyped a series of increasingly complex bots - all dubbed OSCR, short for On-Site Construction Robot. Silver says the robot must be strong and lightweight and agile enough to navigate the minefields of a typical construction site. The initial prototype weighs just under 6 pounds and stands 18 inches tall and is being programmed to climb a ladder and carry three bricks. The final prototype, with advanced grippers and powerful motors, will be able to stack five bricks, walk or crawl, and scan the site to track materials.
Reflecting the direction of robotics in general, the droids would not replace the mason but build smarter labor by taking on repetitive, backbreaking tasks and introducing logistical efficiency – e.g., deploying materials across the site faster and with fewer errors.
The team talked to masons before getting started to understand the challenges of the job. “Masons are a skilled class in high demand,” says Silver. “But it’s getting harder to find people to support them by doing the difficult work of lugging heavy materials around a site.”
“The focus is shifting from robotics to co-robotics, where robots work with humans instead of replacing jobs,” he says. These tools will actually advance the mason’s skills (and create more time for craft) by automating “dumb labor.”
All of which could ultimately lead to more advanced masonry and a new form of generative, or computer-aided, design. “We can leverage the memory and computing power of the robot to increase the complexity with which bricks or stones are arranged,” says Silver.
The research has already garnered support from the American Institute of Architects and the New York State Council of the Arts. The team is also pursuing funding from the National Science Foundation.
To build the initial prototypes, UB architecture students fashioned plastic parts on a 3-D printer. They tested different designs for the feet, frame and arm-like grippers that hold payloads in place. OSCR-3, the current prototype, features carbon fiber ribs which frame the robot, contain its wires and serve as handles.
UB programmers give each model its “brains,” teaching the machines to recognize their surroundings and perform complex movements, including maneuvering in extremely tight spaces. That part of the project is led by Dantu and Napp.
“The engineers have the technical expertise, and what we bring to it is the spirit of making,” says Silver. “Many of my students come from a construction background, and they’re very interested in how they can make this tool useful in industry.”
“We’re moving robots out of the factory and into the field – that’s a huge next step," says Silver. “By bringing materials, machines and software together, we’re developing new processes for making, and that will change architecture.”
Silver says the innovation is not as much in the hardware as it is in the programming of the robot. Some of today’s most advanced automatons function within controlled environments or are programmed to do single tasks. OSCR’s realm is a construction site where people, materials and even the landscape are constantly in flux.
“We’re moving robots out of the factory and into the field – that’s a huge next step,” says Silver. “By bringing materials, machines and software together, we’re developing new processes for making, and that will change architecture.”
Silver and his partners have already progressed to the second phase of the research – the development of “smart glasses” that wirelessly link the mason, robot and offsite Building Information Modeling systems – virtual simulations that architects, contractors and engineers use to map how a construction project is proceeding in space and time. The American Institute of Architects is supporting that endeavor with a $25,000 grant.
“It will be augmented reality — a wearable interface that’s right on your eye,” Silver says. “You’ll be able to put on the glasses and use them as a control system for the robots. You’ll be able to call up menus, send voice commands and get information about the job from architects and engineers.”
While the overall research effort is still in its early stages, the UB researchers imagine the construction site of the future with multiple bots scurrying about and smart glasses as commonplace as the hardhat.
These technologies should be “cheap and easy to deploy, so that a craftsman can use them like any other tool,” Silver says.