Changing expectations: the future of robotics in construction

With the launch of a new national roadmap for robotics in Australia, Roads & Infrastructure Magazine explores the role robotics has to play in Australia’s infrastructure future and the benefits the technology brings.With the launch of a new national roadmap for robotics in Australia, Roads & Infrastructure Magazine explores the role robotics has to play in Australia’s infrastructure future and the benefits the technology brings.

As an interdisciplinary field encompassing a range of industries, robotics may hold the key to unlocking the potential of manufacturing, design, infrastructure and even the social sciences.

From concepts now well integrated into society, such as 3D printers, to the robots we see in Hollywood movies and through to even more abstract ideas around robotics, the various applications of autonomous machines are set to provide unique solutions for these sectors, including construction.

This June, the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision launched an Australia-first Robotics Roadmap for Australia. The document provides a vision for the future of robotics in all robotics-relevant fields – computer and machine vision, artificial intelligence, machine learning and automation and autonomous systems – within Australia.

The roadmap – developed in partnership between the centre, industry, researchers and government – asserts that robotic technologies are central to the fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0) where physical and digital works converge. It is also a concept that heralds a new era for Australia’s industrial and economic future.

According to the roadmap, automation is set to deliver Australia a $2.2 trillion dividend over the next 15 years if Australian businesses are encouraged to accelerate their uptake of new technologies such as robotics and redeploy displaced workers.

Not only could robotic technologies have the potential to make existing jobs safer, but help positively impact on efficiency and the wider Australian economy as the nation faces the challenges of a growing population.

With the launch of a new national roadmap for robotics in Australia, Roads & Infrastructure Magazine explores the role robotics has to play in Australia’s infrastructure future and the benefits the technology brings.The Robotics Roadmap outlines advances in technology that will see robotics tackling increasingly complex physical and cognitive tasks, particularly those within the wider infrastructure and construction sectors. Robotic technologies such as motion control, navigation and computer vision are able to be integrated in previously manned platforms such as cranes, for instance.

“Construction is a harsh, geographically large and disparate, unstructured and perpetually changing environment. Robotic technologies can play a crucial role in reducing injury and fatality rates and also improving productivity,” the roadmap reads.

For the centre’s Chief Operating Officer and Roadmap Chair Sue Keay, robotics may hold both a number of solutions and opportunities for the infrastructure sector.

She says the ongoing skills shortage in Australia’s construction industry is only exacerbated by the next generation’s reluctance to pursue traditional occupations.

“Advances and more investment in robotic technology and automation will help address this skills shortage. We know from consulting industry experts that there’s strong industry need for regulation technology in construction and this is another area where robotics can help. Advanced robotic and vision systems can be deployed to monitor and enforce worker safety and identify and ameliorate potential hazards,” she says.

But construction isn’t the only sector relevant to the advancements of robotics in Australia, infrastructure, utilities, resources and manufacturing have significant roles to play in the country’s robotics story. “While the long-term benefits of transitioning to an Industry 4.0 robot-ready economy are clear – economic growth, wealth creation, job upskilling, diverse job opportunities – short-term dislocation will impact occupations across all industries”, the roadmap reads. “We believe Australia has the opportunity to take a collaborative, multi-sector approach to education, funding and legislation to build its leading role in developing robotic technologies and in the tech sector more generally.”

The roadmap, as such, makes a number of recommendations to help overcome the challenges to the uptake of robotics in Australia, which are underpinned by five key principles: jobs matter, time matters, safety is imperative, remote communities need to be served and certainty counts.

Dr. Keay says the roadmap and its recommendations are the first step towards a national strategy to invest in robotic technologies. She talks to Roads & Infrastructure Magazine about the roadmap, what robotics can bring to Australia’s infrastructure and construction industries and the challenges ahead.

Creating the vision

“We’re world leaders in many different areas and we certainly want to be leaders in robotics – we’re pretty good already but we need to improve our robotic vision,” Dr. Keay says.

Machine – or in this case, robotic – vision is essentially the technology and methods used to facilitate image-based automatic inspection and analysis. Currently, this kind of analysis, particularly in infrastructure activities, is a manual undertaking.

Dr. Keay says robotics in Australia hasn’t reached that level – existing technology is not able to visualise things or make decisions in real-time like a human can – so people are still required to manually operate these machines.

“Robotic vision is the next step, and the heart of what the centre is trying to achieve,” she adds.

Part of the goal of the roadmap is about advancing this key aspect of robotic technology, but also translating the concept of what robotics is for the myriad Australian industries that can potentially benefit from it.

The state of the nation

The roadmap says Australia’s robotics industry is diverse, with more than 1100 companies existing as either service businesses within major corporations or small-medium enterprises catering to niche market needs. However, Dr. Keay says during the roadmap’s development, the team struggled to think of how many Australian robotics and computer vision companies were actually there.

“We had to really ask: ‘who are our stakeholders?’” she says. “Without that information about who is involved in the robotics industry in Australia, it makes for quite a fragile ecosystem – we’ve still only really scratched the surface of what’s happening here.”

According to Dr. Keay, many innovators in the robotics field end up overseas because it’s easier to receive capital investment than in Australia. This is partly due to the lack of visibility of Australian robotics and the economic opportunities it presents for Australia.

“Many of these companies can’t get access to venture capital at the same levels in Australia as in other countries and it’s not clear how often Australian companies decide to go overseas rather than stay here. Some great Australian-originated ideas and businesses may very well be heading overseas and we just don’t know it,” she says.

Besides the crucial investment needed to fund robotics companies in Australia, Dr. Keay says the definition of robotics and how we view it across the industrial sector and even in the public eye is another area where Australia can improve.

“Perception is a funny thing. Often, once robotic technology has become commonly accepted, people don’t see them as robots but as tools,” she asserts.

Unmanned aerial vehicles – or drones – for instance, are quickly becoming the norm as hobbyists and surveyors, contractors and even the military are adopting them into their processes. The flying machines are generally accepted, but, are they classed as robots or just another tool in the toolbox?

“The roadmap is about increasing the visibility of the impact robotics can have on different sectors of the economy. This impact has not previously been recognised and the risk for Australia is that people may not value the sector’s potential,” Dr. Keay says.

Through the roadmap, Dr. Keay says the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision wants to create a kind of translation of what robotics means for Australia to ensure government, industry and research organisations all work towards creating a vibrant national robotics industry.

She says companies can embrace robotics and automation technology, but they need to understand the technology around it. “A business could adopt cloud computing, but they need to understand how that connects with sensors, for instance.

“These things are happening in retail and certainly in manufacturing and construction – it’s a continual evolution. The challenge is making sure we’re on the ball, we have a vibrant robotics industry in Australia and we need to make sure everyone is ready and equipped for it,” she adds.

With a significant investment in infrastructure projects taking place across the nation, Dr. Keay says it is doubly important for the construction sector to change how it views robotics.

“Obviously there are businesses in construction that are ahead of the curve and embracing the technology, but the construction industry seems to be well behind in use of robotics in general,” she says.

“We’ve got to create the innovation Australia is requiring in construction, otherwise that will lead to a very fragile situation in the future.

“No matter what business you’re in, all companies are going to be affected by the Industry 4.0 revolution. The roadmap is about putting in place the building blocks for growing the Australian robotics industry.”

Translating shared value

For Nathan Kirchner, Future Robotics Lead within the Laing O’Rourke Group and co-chair on the construction and manufacturing sections of the Robotics Roadmap, there are significant challenges in the construction sector in embracing robotics, and risks as a result.

“The application of robotics for construction is not easy – the sector is so large and it complicates things. One of the big challenges in R&D is to change from application to product research to something usable in the field,” Dr. Kirchner explains.

He says often infrastructure businesses just aren’t aware of what other companies are doing in the robotics space or the technology being used out there, or the opportunities they may provide. “We have some of the most advanced robotics businesses in Australia – we’re ahead of other countries, but the real risk we have is lack of visibility and engagement.

“We don’t work with other kinds of companies – the construction industry has this great opportunity to work together with robotics, but it’s fragmented, and we need to form these relationships and strategic alliances,” he says.

“We should all be working on the same applications because we’re all trying to do the same thing.”

Dr. Kirchner says a lot of robotic technology that is perceived as new, may, in fact, have been used for quite some time in the industry, but people just aren’t aware of it.

“In my experience, the expectation versus reality of what a robot is is where the issue of visibility begins. We look at something like drones. Drones are technology introduced more than five years ago, but they’re now just becoming common in the industry.”

The roadmap aims to help encourage that collaboration and conversation between different businesses across Australia’s industrial sectors, but also translate the shared value of robotics, which Dr. Kirchner says is crucial, especially in the construction sector.

“I don’t specialise in construction, so when I go to a construction site the terms and language used doesn’t make sense to me – there needs to be a translation process in there,” he says.

The same rules apply to the various service providers and businesses catering to different parts of the sector when it comes to robotics. The roadmap aims to help foster that translation of shared value and growth of the sector, which is already taking shape.

The roadmap includes a number of case studies, including many around the use of UAVs in infrastructure, but other more niche areas of interest.

One case study focused on New South Wales Roads and Maritime Services and the University of Technology Sydney’s investment in the development of autonomous robots for removing rust and old paint on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Once placed within a steel structure, a user can activate the robot, which then automatically senses and explores an unknown 3D environment, builds a 3D map, plans a collision-free motion and performs grit-blasting operations.

Dr. Kirchner says the examples featured have already started to get the ball rolling about where that robotic technology can be applied for businesses in other sectors of the infrastructure market.

“The point of the roadmap was never really based on the technology, but to produce an independently vetted roadmap. But we’ve had people seeing it and going from never heard about robotics or even considered to it, to quickly contacting those involved in the examples – that’s a huge outcome.”

Clearing up expectations

Dr. Kirchner asserts that some issues in the uptake of robotics in infrastructure activities, and in general, are a result of mismatched expectations.

“We’ve got companies and industries that are hungry for this technology but as soon as they see it they’re disgruntled. They don’t understand it,” he explains.

A conventional view of robots in general, Dr. Kirchner says, is somewhat taken from the representation of robotics in films and television shows. He says people are disappointed that something they saw in a film 10 years ago is just becoming a reality now.

Rather than taking the traditional view that robotics improves safety and efficiency, Dr. Kirchner says robotics is making jobs easier.

“Good work is safe work, so if you design it well, it’s inherently safe. If we just try putting in safe systems, it’s just more red tape. If you try and improve efficiency, it just comes down to who has the better resources to do so,” he says.

“The opportunity of robotic technology is transformative. It’s a bit like a reset button – we change the way we do things. Maybe robotics is a bit safer and a bit more productive, but it actually allows us to do things right and better.”

The age-old fear of robots taking jobs away from construction, manufacturing and other industrial sectors is also another mismatched expectation Dr. Kirchner says hinders the progress of robotics in Australia.

Take the example of a cordless drill. The robotics aspect could be introducing a laser-guided element, which makes the task more accurate.

“The person still needs to be there to operate it – it’s not taking jobs away, it’s making them easier. It means the user can focus on other tasks and improve their own productivity,” Dr. Kirchner says.

“That view changes things and when we think about it with that in mind, robotics isn’t about safety and productivity. It’s changing mindsets at work – it makes it easier to do my job.”

He adds that being able to make that mind shift is immensely powerful. “There is a bit of power that comes with perception around closing that expectations versus reality gap. The challenge is in the learning quadrant – most people just aren’t aware of what’s out there won’t unless we show it to them – people don’t know what they don’t know.

“The step we’ve made with the Robotics Roadmap for Australia – which is a phenomenally large step – is giving that little bit of information out and growing the challenge around robotics in Australia.”

A roadmap to success

While there are challenges around what robotics means for different industrial markets, particularly around construction and infrastructure, Dr. Keay says robotics has a bright future in Australia.

“Because Australia is such a vast country, we have a need for robotics in remote services but there’s also opportunity in showcasing that technology in that remote setting – creating a test bed for long distances,” she asserts.

“It’s then about exploiting the opportunities.”

Dr. Keay says the legal standards framework built around robotics in Australia is a good start, but there’s more that needs to be done.

With the launch of a new national roadmap for robotics in Australia, Roads & Infrastructure Magazine explores the role robotics has to play in Australia’s infrastructure future and the benefits the technology brings.“We need to define the industry and what it is, then develop our robotics research activity in clusters,” she says.

Part of that development needs to occur around creating aspirational robotics research challenges and encouraging multidisciplinary problem solving.

The roadmap recommends that government lead Australia in catalysing robotics activity by setting these ethical, legal and standards frameworks and also adopting robotics into government services. However, it also suggests that industry needs to help stimulate growth, particularly around the formation of new hi-tech firms, encouraging global businesses to invest in Australia and reskilling the workforce.

“The next steps for us are to look at how we can work and develop these technologies and innovations, but that innovation comes down to visibility,” Dr. Keay says.

“The mining sector value chain, for instance, was in that position where their industry wasn’t defined. But, someone gave it a name – the Australian Mining Equipment, Technology and Services (METS) sector – and capitalised on it, leading to venture capital investment.

“That visibility for the robotics industry is really critical and what we hope that the Robotics Roadmap will begin to build. There needs to be that encouragement around building a vibrant robotics industry – we need to develop that entrepreneurial culture.”

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