Theresa Arevalo was in high school when she first tried finishing drywall at her brother's construction company. "It's a fine art," she says of mud – the application and smoothing of drywall. "Like icing a cake, you have to give the illusion that the wall is flat."
Fast forward a few decades: Arevalo is now working at Canvas, a company that has built an artificial intelligence robot that can drywall with almost as much skill as a skilled human worker.
The robot has been used on several construction sites in the past few months under Arevalo's supervision, including the new Harvey Milk Terminal at San Francisco International Airport and an office building connected to the Chase Center arena in San Francisco.
The four-wheeled robot is about the size of a kitchen stove and uses laser scanners and a robotic arm attached to a vertical platform to navigate through an unfinished building. In one room, the robot scans the unfinished walls with lidar and then goes to work smoothing the surface before applying a near-perfect layer of drywall compound. Sensors help to stay away from human workers.
The canvas robot enables businesses to do more drywall work in less time. It requires human supervision, but its operator doesn't have to be an experienced drywaller or a robotics engineer.
Using robots on construction sites has long been impractical because the environment is so diverse, complex, and changeable. In recent years, however, advances such as inexpensive laser sensors, cheaper robotic arms and grippers, and open source software for navigation and computer vision have enabled the automation and analysis of other designs.
The more advanced machines marching on construction sites will help make building less wasteful. According to McKinsey, productivity in construction has improved less than any other industry in the past few decades. The introduction of more automation can also change the demand for labor in a number of construction trades.
Kevin Albert, Co-Founder and CEO of Canvas, previously worked at Boston Dynamics (a company known for its lifelike walking robots) and in the manufacturing industry. He says there are great opportunities in construction, which generates about $ 1.4 trillion annually and accounts for around 7 percent of US GDP, but has made relatively little use of computerization and automation. “We really see construction as mobile manufacturing,” he says. "There's this natural extension of what machines can do in the real world now."
Canvas is part of a boom in construction technology, says Alex Schreyer, director of construction and construction technology program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He says some of the greatest advances in prefabrication of buildings are being made by using robotic processes to build large pieces of buildings that are then assembled on site. Increasingly, he says, robots and AI are also finding their way into conventional workplaces.
Autonomous vehicles made from Volvo ferry materials and tools in some large locations. Thanks to the technology of the San Francisco-based startup Built Robotics, construction machinery such as excavators and bulldozers can work autonomously. A growing number of robotic devices can perform specialized construction tasks, including welding, drilling, and laying bricks. "There are some really interesting things going on," says Schreyer.
"So Much Potential"
An IDC report published in January 2020 predicts that the demand for construction robots will increase by around 25 percent annually through 2023.
According to Schreyer, there is a great opportunity in the construction industry to use computer vision and other sensor technologies to track the movement of materials and workers on a construction site. Software can automatically flag when a job falls behind or when something has been installed in the wrong place. "There is so much potential to make something out of it with AI," says Schreyer. "More companies will move into this AI area."
Doxel, based in Redwood City, California, makes a mobile robot that scans workplaces in 3D so the software can calculate project progress. A four-legged Boston Dynamics robot named Spot is being tested in multiple locations for the same purpose. Several companies, including Propeller, vHive, ABJ Drones and DJI, sell drones for automated inspection of construction sites.
Buildots, based in Tel Aviv, Israel, sells software that uses cameras attached to the helmets of site managers. These automatically capture a site and process the images to identify discrepancies between plans and work in progress. The technology is used on several large European construction projects.
Roy Danon, Co-Founder and CEO of Buildots, says the goal is to use the data gathered from construction sites to help companies plan buildings and better plan construction plans. "We believe that we can have a huge impact on planning," he says, "when we have enough projects that show how you plan and how things actually work out."
"Technology adoption in construction has lagged almost everything but hunting and fishing in the last few decades," said Josh Johnson, a McKinsey consultant who follows the construction industry.
Enter the pandemic
A McKinsey report last month predicted a major shock to the entire construction industry over the next decade, with companies adopting technologies and methods from the manufacturing world. Thanks to advances in technology and an increasingly tech-savvy workforce, things have already changed, Johnson says. The pandemic is also accelerating relocation by making it harder to get workers to one location and forcing companies to reevaluate utility lines and processes. "It's forcing a lot of these legacies (builders) and big companies to start investing," says Johnson.
Arevalo, who oversees the use of the canvas robot, says that the drywall robot cannot negotiate nooks and crannies like a human can. She says that many trainees see working with the robot as an opportunity to learn how to use more advanced robotic machines.
The company also has the support of the local union. "It is important for skilled workers to have large resources in their toolkit and we are excited to be at the cutting edge of technology in our industry by partnering with Canvas," said Robert Williams III, Business Manager, District Council 16 , International Union of Painters and Allied Craftsmen, said in a statement.
However, this apparently did not address the concerns of construction workers who saw the robot in action. "They love the fact that it's so persistent that the wall is beautiful," says Arevalo. "But then the next question is," When will it take my job? "
This story originally appeared on wired.com.
Listing image from canvas