How do robots facilitate 3D mapping on construction sites?
Dr Sen Wang, Associate Professor of Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and RAS Theme Leader at the National Robotarium, discusses how robots can facilitate 3D mapping on construction sites and what what the industry can expect in the robotics of the future
The use of robots to assist humans in hazardous environments is growing, with autonomous systems increasingly being deployed to eliminate risk to human personnel as well as business benefits such as speeding up the construction process, l increasing efficiency and improving quality control. Now, robots equipped with Lidar are able to create a 3D image of their environment while spotting obstacles such as rubble or machinery on construction sites. By assimilating the collected data, they are able to generate 3D maps of these sites.
Why use robots for 3D mapping?
3D mapping requires a device capable of scanning multiple points to represent a geometric structure as a 3D map. Today, the Lidar sensor is widely used in construction for 3D mapping because it is very accurate and reliable. However, most Lidar-based survey solutions are static analysis, which requires personnel to manually move Lidar sensors around sites, including in tight and dangerous spaces. This can lead to complications not only for the workers themselves, but also for the construction planners, as they are forced to wait for the scanning process to complete before they can start planning.
Using robots for 3D mapping is one way to overcome these complications. By installing Lidar sensors in their quadruped robot “SPOT”, National Robotarium academics have developed a state-of-the-art 3D mapping system that combines the precision of Lidar scanners with the efficiency and mobility of robots. Where Lidar scans take a few days to complete a 3D map of a construction site, robots can complete the task in just thirty minutes. Robots also have the ability to perform this task autonomously, saving time when moving the Lidar scanner around the site and reducing the inherent risk of personnel being present on site. Delivered through the ORCA Hub, a strategic project within the National Robotarium, the technique is now attracting interest from a range of construction companies.
What is the technology behind 3D mapping robots?
Mobile 3D scanning using robots relies on a technology that seemed unfeasible thirty years ago: Simultaneous Localization and Mapping, or SLAM. This means the robots can simultaneously perform the dual task of 3D mapping and localizing themselves in a new and complex environment.
SLAM technology is already present in self-driving cars because it is essential that these vehicles acquire an accurate and rapid understanding of the environment in which they find themselves while driving through it. So, the technological advancements that underpin 3D mapping robots have been key to solving some of automation’s biggest challenges.
In addition to collaborating with industry leaders to design technology suitable for construction, National Robotarium researchers have also developed SLAM software that does not require a GPS signal while allowing the robot to be located at all times. . Therefore, robots can map areas such as underground tunnels and other remote and hard-to-reach spaces. This is important for construction mapping because all areas should be mapped, regardless of location or accessibility.
In addition to SLAM, robots are being developed with autonomous navigation, or the ability to maneuver in space without remote control. This technology is the fundamental enabler of 3D mapping as it implies that robots can navigate around any obstacle, including water, but also plan their path accordingly. Autonomous navigation therefore helps robots adapt to their environment and optimize routes around sites, providing faster and more accurate 3D mapping than static Lidar scanners.
Finally, advances in physical hardware have played a key role in the development of robot scanners. Since construction sites are complicated and dangerous spaces, a robot capable of navigating these terrains is necessary for the industry. Even common obstacles, such as stairs, require highly developed and adapted technology. Physical hardware has been another key technological development to ensure that robots operating on construction sites are robust and reliable.
Where is this technology used?
The 3D mapping robot technology was developed by researchers at the National Robotarium, a world leader in advancing robotics and artificial intelligence research. a research center at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. Roboticists have worked collaboratively with industry partners and construction professionals to ensure robots are equipped to perform optimally in the construction environment and that this technology is informed by the needs of industry and solves the problems faced by construction companies.
Researchers regularly test their 3D mapping robots on the construction site of the new National Robotarium facility in Edinburgh. This way, they can monitor and understand each step of the construction process in greater depth and identify gaps in technology, feeding that data and information back into ongoing research and development. Several construction companies have expressed interest in the technology, and the National Robotarium is keen to engage with industry to provide solutions that add value to partners and meet industry needs.
How will construction companies benefit from using robots?
First, the use of robots for 3D mapping will allow construction companies to reduce costs. Since the mapping process is greatly accelerated by the use of robots, construction planners can compare construction progress as it occurs on site with the digital construction design, and identify and resolve any discrepancies. between the two at a much earlier stage. It is estimated that £2 billion is spent each year in the UK on construction work, and earlier identification of discrepancies could significantly reduce this cost while reducing delays to construction projects.
Second, robots can help increase the quality and efficiency of the construction process. Since the data collection process is standardized through the use of robotics, data quality can be more consistent across all construction sites. This allows planners and engineers to trust the reliability and consistency of information that informs their decision-making and improves the quality of construction site infrastructure. With robots repeating the standards and quality of work by following the same process on different terrains, the value of data is enhanced and therefore the quality of work increases. This allows workers to concentrate on other tasks on site.
Third, robots can be used in construction to eliminate unnecessary health and safety risks. For example, using robots to access and inspect hazardous terrain like a tunnel reduces the risk to workers who may not be aware of obstacles or other hazards before entering the tunnel. Robots can monitor the area and recognize obstacles that may pose a safety risk, providing invaluable data to all team members that can be used in planning and risk assessment.
Finally, using robots for 3D mapping helps planners and site managers oversee multiple sites simultaneously. Because robots can be located remotely and provide data without human assistance, managers do not need to be physically present to access the 3D maps created. As a result, robots can be used for remote work and can reduce the potential costs of extensive and sometimes international travel.
How will robots change construction?
In addition to having short-term benefits such as reduced costs, reduced site risk and increased construction efficiency, robots have the potential to change the face of the industry from building.
As robots are increasingly used to automate specific tasks like drilling or digging, it is easy to envision a future where the construction industry is fully automated. This means that construction sites will operate 24/7 and infrastructure will develop in complex and risky terrain. Thus, robots can provide solutions to the challenges of the future, such as flooding or limited access to land, optimizing space and making construction more efficient and adapted to the available space.
As the National Robotarium continues to advance robotics and AI research on the global stage and work collaboratively with industry partners, many new and potential robot capabilities in the construction industry continue to appear. Additionally, the continuous research and development taking place in the field of robotics enables researchers to explore ways to adapt robots to construction sites, thereby building the future of the construction industry.