Brief 

The complexities and human presence in construction have precluded the introduction of robots on work sites, but a research team led by the University of Michigan aims to change that. The team will use a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to introduce smart “interactive robot assistants” that can work with their human counterparts on-site and learn from them.

 

Insight

With the aim of enabling robots to learn from human partners on construction sites, the National Science Foundation is providing $2 million to a University of Michigan-led research team.Robots are anticipated to make the global construction industry safer and more attractive to workers, easing a worker shortage in the U.S.

For decades, construction has been one of the most dangerous and least efficient human endeavors. It lags far behind other parts of the economy in productivity and struggles to attract workers to jobs that are often perceived as backbreaking. In collaboration with the University of Florida and Washington State University, researchers from U-M’s College of Engineering and Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning hope to change that.

Carol Menassa, the lead principal investigator of the research team and an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at U-M, explains that using automation and robotics on construction sites is critical if construction is to benefit from the productivity gains that have reshaped other industries, like manufacturing.

“Construction is much more dynamic and unpredictable than an environment like a factory, so we’re working to redefine the balance between human and robot workers,” she said. “Humans and robots need to coexist, and that’s the premise of what we’re doing right now.”

The three-year project will pair humans with “interactive robot assistants” that can learn from humans through watching and listening—much like human apprentices would. The robots could eventually make construction work less dangerous and strenuous for humans while still enabling us to call the shots and solve problems.

 

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