Robots and Affordable Housing

According to the UN-Habitat program, 30% of the world’s urban population lives in slums and deplorable conditions. Overall, more than 1.5 billion people are in desperate need of better housing. According to global consulting firm McKinsey & Company, the projected cost of providing affordable housing to millions of households around the world currently living in substandard accommodations is estimated to be around $16 trillion. How long will it take to make affordable housing a possibility? Can robots play a significant role in solving this challenge within a shorter timespan? Scientists are planning to use robots to construct houses on the Moon and Mars, so why it is so daunting to do it on Earth? At present, there are just a few evolving techniques for house construction that can be integrated with robotics technologies to address this challenge. Most notably, 3D printing of buildings, drones for construction, and termite-inspired robots all seem to be promising technologies to aid in addressing the challenge of affordable housing.

Building printing utilizes various technologies to do 3D printing or additive manufacturing at a large scale, mostly used to construct structural buildings. In fact, some experts believe that additive manufacturing has the potential to replace the existing Portland cement technology. Building printing could revolutionize construction by increasing efficiency, reducing pollution and waste, and offering tailor-made housing solutions worldwide. This could prove beneficial in building low-cost housing especially in impoverished areas, war-torn locations, and areas affected by natural disasters. Undoubtedly, 3D building printing appears to be an asset to some aspects of construction industry processes by bringing cheaper, faster, and more effective practices. However, there are some unsettled issues as well. These include problems related to construction materials, the practicality of design, user acceptance, comfort, safety, compliance with construction standards, and actual cost. Hopefully, demonstration prototypes of 3D printed buildings such as 3D Print Canal House in the Netherlands and $5,000 demo houses from the Chinese company WinSun can open up the new possibilities of 3D printer-based building technologies to spur further innovations.

Drones are already changing the way construction companies do business by forming an integral part of business operations, reducing construction risks, and saving a significant amount of money. The increasing use of camera-mounted drones to monitor real-time construction activities, access unreachable points at construction sites, manipulate materials, analyze job progress data, and identify the potential hazards or quality issues are indications of the potential that drones represent. Companies such as Siemens and Komatsu are already making use of these unique attributes of drones in their smart construction projects. In terms of commercial value, this makes a lot of sense. But imagine when drones show the capability of building a structure by themselves. In 2011, roboticists at ETH Zürich’s Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control demonstrated a 20 foot tower constructed by a fleet of flying robots. The EU project ARCAS is another example where the development and experimental validation of the first cooperative free-flying robot system for assembly and construction of real world structures is being investigated. At present, there are many challenges for drone technology related to payload carrying capacity, precise manipulation, control, and sensing that have forced the applications of drones to lightweight construction systems like fabrication of tensile cable-net structures and 3D cable based suspensions. With that said, drones as construction machines certainly provide a glimpse of the future.

Termite-inspired robots or TERMES robots are biomimetic autonomous robots capable of building complex structures without a central controller. These robots are inspired by the complex mounds that termites build. The robots could construct the structures through a process called stigmergy by following simple rules to navigate and move building blocks. In 2014, a prototype team of termite-inspired robots was demonstrated by Harvard University researchers. The system is still in the initial stage of development and we are not sure when we will see large-scale construction projects on Earth using TERMES, but as a proof of concept it has certainly demonstrated the potential of collective decentralized behavior in constructing complex structures.

These advancements have significant potential and the early experiments with robots for construction are generating tremendous hope and excitement among architects, designers, housing contractors, engineers, and corporations alike. The big question is when the robots will actually disrupt the age-old construction industry and make housing more affordable at large scale. Perhaps sooner than we expect.

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