Theresa Arevalo was in high school when she first tried to finish drywall at her brother’s construction company. “It’s a fine art,” she says of mud-applying and smoothing drywall. “Like the icing of a cake, you have to create the illusion that the wall is flat.”
Fast forward a few decades: Arevalo now works at Canvas, a company that has built a robot using artificial intelligence capable of making drywall with almost as much artistry as a skilled human worker.
Under Arevalo’s supervision, the robot has been deployed on several construction sites in recent months, including the new Harvey Milk Terminal at San Francisco International Airport and an office building connected to the Chase Center arena in San Francisco.
About the size of a kitchen stove, the four-wheeled robot navigates an unfinished building with laser scanners and a robotic arm mounted on a vertical platform. When placed in a room, the robot scans the unfinished walls using lidar and then gets to work smoothing the surface before applying a near-perfect coat of drywall compound; sensors help it keep away from human workers.
The Canvas robot can help companies do more drywall in less time. It requires human supervision, but the operator does not have to be an expert drywall or roboticist.
It has long been impractical to deploy robots on construction sites because the environment is so varied, complex and changing. However, in recent years, advances including inexpensive laser sensors, cheaper robotic arms and grippers, and open source software for navigation and computer vision have made it possible to automate and analyze more structures.
The more advanced machines marching on construction sites will make construction less wasteful. According to McKinsey, productivity in construction has improved less in recent decades than in any other industry. The advent of more automation could also change the demand for labor in a number of construction sectors.
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 is great opportunity in construction, which generates about $1.4 trillion annually and accounts for about 7 percent of US GDP, but has made relatively little use of automation and automation. “We really see construction as mobile manufacturing,” he says. “There’s a natural extension of what machines can do in the real world now.”
Canvas is part of a boom in construction technology, said Alex Schreyer, director of the Building and Construction Technology Program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He says the greatest advances are being made in building prefabrication, which uses robotic processes to build large sections of buildings that are then assembled on site. But increasingly, he says, robots and AI are also finding their way into conventional workplaces.
Autonomous vehicles made by Volvo ferry materials and tools around some major locations. Technology from San Francisco-based startup Built Robotics allows construction equipment such as excavators and bulldozers to work autonomously. A growing number of robotic equipment can take over specialized construction tasks such as welding, drilling and masonry. “Really interesting things are happening,” Schreyer says.
“So much potential”
An IDC report published in January 2020 predicts that demand for construction robots will grow at about 25 percent annually through 2023.
A big opportunity in construction, Schreyer says, is the use of computer vision and other sensing technologies to track the movement of materials and workers around a workplace. Software can automatically detect if a task is lagging or if something is installed in the wrong place. “There’s so much potential to do something with that using AI,” says Schreyer. “More companies are going to enter that AI space.”
Based in Redwood City, California, Doxel is creating a mobile robot that scans workplaces in 3D so software can calculate how the project is progressing. A four-legged Boston Dynamics robot named Spot is being tested in a number of locations for the same purpose. Several companies sell drones for automated construction site inspection, including Propeller, vHive, ABJ Drones, and DJI.
Buildots, based in Tel Aviv, Israel, sells software that uses cameras mounted on site managers’ helmets, which automatically capture a site and process the images to identify discrepancies between plans and work in progress. The technology is used in several major European construction projects.
Roy Danon, co-founder and CEO of Buildots, says the goal is to use the data collected on construction sites to help companies design buildings and better plan construction schedules. “We believe we can have a huge impact on planning,” he says, “if we have enough projects that show how you plan and how things actually turn out.”
“Technology adoption in construction has lagged behind almost everything except hunting and fishing in recent decades,” said Josh Johnson, a McKinsey consultant who tracks the construction industry.
Enter the pandemic
A McKinsey report last month predicted a major shock to the construction industry over the next decade, with companies adopting technologies and methodologies from the manufacturing world. Things have already started to change, thanks to technological advances and an increasingly tech-savvy workforce, Johnson says. The pandemic is also accelerating the shift by making it more difficult to get workers to a location and forcing companies to re-evaluate supply lines and processes. “It forces a lot of these legacies” [construction contractors] and large companies to start investing,” Johnson says.
Arevalo, who oversees the implementation of Canvas’s robot, says the drywall robot can’t tackle corners or corners like a human; she says many students 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 critical for skilled workers to have large resources in their toolbox, and we are excited to be at the forefront of technology in our industries by partnering with Canvas,” Robert Williams III, business manager at District Council 16, International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, said in a statement.
But this apparently hasn’t allayed concerns among construction workers who have seen the robot in action. “They like the fact that it’s so consistent, that the wall is beautiful,” Arevalo says. “But then the next question is, ‘When is it going to take over my job?'”
This story originally appeared on wired.com.
Picture frame by Canvas