Robots, robots, everywhere.
Their presence across a wide range of industries is growing at an unprecedented rate, with Real Estate and Construction being, of course, my main object of interest.
But it’s not just my PropTech senses tingling when it comes to robotics. In my reading I’m coming across a huge wealth of examples of the wider uses of robots, and how they’re gradually feeding into our everyday lives. As such, I wanted to give you all a bit of robotic meat to chew on.
Robots in the Office
The Robot Receptionist
You may have seen in my most recent Sunday PropTech Review that Australian Real Estate company, JLL, has employed a robot at their Sydney office. The robot, rather predictably named JiLL, is the company’s new receptionist.
Despite a limited verbal syntax, and a height of just 57cm, JLL has trusted JiLL with the task of welcoming customers and receiving deliveries to the office. JiLL cost the company $20,000 AUS to create, which Head of Integrated Facilities Management, Chris Hunt, says is five times less than it would cost them to hire a receptionist.
Of course, JiLL is a bit of a PR stunt, and can – at this stage – not really be a long-term solution unless visitors to the office become more comfortable speaking to JiLL than to an actual person (Hunt admits they’ve been a bit hesitant so far).
Mind you, JiLL isn’t the only robot at JLL. The company also uses robotic cleaning devices in their larger facilities, and Hunt hopes to roll out more robotic employees across a number of different roles.
Beyond robot receptionists, we’re starting to see everything from robotic luggage handlers (Yobot at New York’s Yotel) and robot butlers (Botlr at Starwood Hotel, California) in the Hospitality industry, to robot security guards on commercial properties, like Bob, who guards the G4S Technology building in London.
Minerva – the Robot Tour Guide
Minerva has been developed collaboratively between Carnegie-Mellon University’s Robot Learning Lab, and the University of Bonn’s Computer Science department. She is a mobile, talking robot, who has just undergone her initial trials giving exhibit tours to visitors at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History in Washington DC.
Minerva learned the museum’s floor plan, and independently navigated her way around the exhibit, using just her sensors and processors. She approached visitors, asking them if they were interested in a tour and showed them around the main exhibit, offering them information and explanations of some of the exhibit’s highlights. She even commented on visitors’ clothing… which must have been a bit weird.
All very amusing, but Sebastian Thrun, Associate Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, and one of Minerva’s creators, does note some drawbacks.
“Minerva cannot traverse staircases yet, and also cannot handle a dialogue. It appears fairly feasible to have a robot that provides some fixed information, but they won’t be able to carry out fluent dialogues in general. So these robots won’t replace Real Estate agents. They will augment them.”
Because she can’t yet negotiate stairs, at this point at least two Minerva robots would be necessary in most properties, if she were to stand in for a Real Estate agent. Nonetheless, the Urban Robot, by IS Robotics, is currently being developed, which can negotiate a 25’ staircase in less than 8 seconds. So it’s looking like this issue will be overcome in the near future. But with a limited dialogue, there’s only so much a robotic Real Estate agent could do. It’s more likely, too, that potential buyers would prefer to interact with a human on their property tour.
Mind you, a Minerva-style robot could, potentially, have a function within Real Estate offices, like the LoweBot (developed by NAVii by Fellow Robotics) just launched by retail chain, Lowe’s, in 11 of their San Francisco Bay stores.
LoweBot helps customers with simple questions, can find products in multiple languages, and – crucially – effectively navigate the store where it works. This frees up time for Lowe’s store staff to spend more time offering their expertise and specialist knowledge to customers. And, additionally, LoweBot can assist with inventory monitoring in real time, helping detect patterns that will be able to guide further business decisions.
A robot like this could make a great addition to Real Estate branches, gathering initial details and data from visitors to the branch, saving agents’ time ahead of initial contact. It could probably manage a part of general office admin, too. This sort of application of robotic assistants in the Real Estate industry would really streamline the job of Real Estate agents, allowing them to get on with key aspects of their role.
There’s also talk of Telepresence robots in the Real Estate industry. These remote controlled, wheeled robots feature a screen that allows agents to give client previews of properties, as well as allowing video conferences from anywhere, and to have virtual meetings with clients and co-workers. Maybe I’m missing something here, but I fail to see why this would be a better option than using a tablet.
Robot Technology in Construction and Architecture
Let’s start this bit with a little look at SAM100, the bricklaying robot developed by Construction Robotics:
14 seconds a brick might seem pretty slow right now, but it’s still a great example of the potential for automation on the building site. And, it goes without saying, it will get quicker.
Equally, we have to remember that Robots will just keep going. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. No coffee breaks, no finishing early on a Friday. They just keep going.
3D Printing Robots
I’ve written at length about the use of 3D printing in Construction, and even a little on how drones are being used in combination with 3D printing in disaster zones. Robotic arms used on large-scale 3D printers allow teams to print ten times faster, creating a huge variety of forms: curved, hollow, and geometrically complex shapes that are outside the capability of most human bricklayers, can now be achieved using 3D printing tech.
One of the groups working on 3D printing technology for Construction is the Civil Engineering department at Loughborough University. Professor Simon Austin, Loughborough’s Professor of Structural Engineering, says:
“I think that companies who become early adopters of 3D printing will learn a huge amount about automation and robotics, and how they can be exploited on a site”.
If Austin’s predictions are correct, this sort of technology might be the entry point at which the, ostensibly tech-phobic, Construction industry begins mass adoption of the technology that will inarguably have a revolutionary effect on the way Construction operates in the future.
3D printing is also an exciting development for architects and sculptors, who are seeing the technology’s potential for the creation of large-scale sculptures and conceptual architecture. Dutch architect, Janjaap Ruijssenaars, for example, used the 3D printing technology of CAD software controlled D-Shape, to build his Mobius Strip-inspired Landscape House.
Drones in Construction and Architecture
From 3D printing in architecture, to drones. Swiss architects Fabio Gramazio and Matthias Kohler consider drone technology to be instrumental in Construction, with the capacity to take command of all aspects of the construction process. The pair recently collaborated on Flight Assembled Architecture, an art installation at the FRAC Centre in Orleans, France. The installation was constructed with a team of 50 flying robots, who successfully built a six foot, structurally stable tower using 1,500 Styrofoam blocks.
During their work, the drones were detected by motion-capture sensors to be working at a speed of 370 feet per second. Beyond the installation itself, the programming behind the project is particularly impressive. Algorithms determined how to most efficiently dispatch the drones, avoid collisions, and determine best-case paths for fastest payload pickup and release.
Gramazio and Kohler, however, aren’t only interested in the potentially new aesthetic and style that could be developed via robot technology. They wish to overturn the current incarnation of the architect, from their marginalised place in the design office, back to the construction site itself.
They envisage a new architect-programmer, whose power to programme the construction of their designs through robotics working on the ground, will put the architect back in control. Architects won’t be using computers for design alone anymore, the computer will be fully integrated into construction. Programming and architecture become indistinguishable: the idea becomes information – the pair call it “digital materiality”.
“We believe that in the next 20 years a large part of the Construction industry – large parts of it are still very primitive – will move to digital fabrication… [Construction] still plans like it’s 200 years ago, redrawing everything five times, making a lot of mistakes on site, delivering a very poor quality for a high price, and dramatically limiting creative or expressive potential”.
Drones are a large part of the robotics revolution, and in Construction they will be instrumental to the change that needs to occur to bring the industry up to date.
Already, flying drones are taking on roles in a number of aspects of the construction process.
The drone can offer a wide range of in-depth inspection applications. Specialised camera technology is fast being implemented. Infrared filters and sensors that can detect gas leaks, and thermal imaging technology can reveal any building damage and potential threats. Combine this with the capability for gathering staggeringly accurate, multilevel data, and the implications are hugely significant. Such functions remove the cost and risk associated with human inspection on areas that are difficult or hazardous to reach, and the data they can gather could be far deeper.
I’ve written about Skycatch, the San Francisco based drone company that is being used to give a bird’s-eye view of development sites, speeding up the logistics of construction by monitoring deliveries, offering real time updates for any changes to plans, and providing live progress reports.
Japanese construction machinery company, Komatsu, is also using Skycatch drones as the eyes for automated bulldozers. Yes – automated bulldozers. 3D models of the building site are gathered by the drones, and sent to a computer which then feeds the information to the automated machinery to plot their course.
Drones, however, aren’t the only robots who can gather data.
Robots in Real Estate
Back on the ground, robots are performing some extremely useful functions on existing properties.
Take SPIN (Sanborn Platform for Indoor Mapping) for example. This semi-autonomous robot uses laser scanning, photogrammetry, and computer vision to produce 3D maps of interior spaces. Beyond its application in virtual walkthroughs and so forth, these 3D maps will be useful for showing clients geographical information, and for conducting searches of properties.
Max, a smart building robot developed by AtSite, is designed to provide visual inspections of building conditions. Max can collect environmental data on pressure, light, humidity, temperature, sound, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and CO2 emissions. A robot like Max, who can provide accurate and thorough building inspections will be hugely convenient to the Real Estate purchase process. A same-day inspection report can be generated straightaway for clients in location.
Property maintenance jobs, too, could find themselves automated, which will be great news for domestic landlords and owners of commercial property. New sensor technologies that enable robots to effectively ‘see’ obstacles in their path will allow robots to perform a wide range of property maintenance jobs without needing human labour. A robot could scrub floors in shared spaces, mow lawns, clean windows, and so on.
The Solarbrush robotic cleaning system, for example, is a handy lightweight, wireless robot for solar panels. Cleaning solar panels can be a hazardous job in commercial buildings, and using a robot instead therefore makes perfect sense. The Solarbrush can walk at 35 degree angles, cleaning away dust and dirt that can reduce solar panel effectiveness by 30%.
Robots can also manage building systems: autonomous and cognitive software robots are being used to accomplish diverse engineering tasks, relaying crucial data back to a central command centre. Again by JLL (of the JiLL robot receptionist, above), the IntelliCommand robots, equipped with real time location services, interact with building systems, extracting real time data and simultaneously conducting fast, accurate environmental sampling.
Leo O’Loughlin, Senior Vice President of Energy and Sustainable Services at IntelliCommand, JLL, says:
“Their ability to respond to data makes it possible for buildings to almost manage themselves. When the building equipment data indicates that, say, a fan is running at the wrong speed, the gbots will adjust the fan speed.”
The Economics and Application of Robot Technology
In many ways, robots can match, and even sometimes improve upon, human performance. They can sharply improve productivity, and offset regional costs in labour and skill availability, for example. Their needs, as opposed to humans’, are much more straightforward for employers to handle.
Robots have no need of supervision, food or bathroom breaks. They do not need heating, air conditioning or light to function. “Lights out” manufacturing plants can therefore make significant cost and energy savings by the use of robots as opposed to human employees. Where humans are necessary for particular tasks but not for others, a business could implement day shifts for humans, and night shifts for robots. No overtime costs, no on site supervisors.
As they become more affordable, and user interfaces and application processing become more easy to use, robot technology is allowing small batch production to be more economically feasible. Line changeovers, for example, are dramatically sped up.
There are potential downsides, though. The most significant of these is the potentially decreased financial flexibility with robot employees.
When demand for a product goes down, human staff are either laid off or moved on to other assignments within the company. But with robots, financed capital equipment still needs to be paid for each month. The employer, therefore, is bound into their obligations with robots in a way that they are not with people.
It is anticipated that the rise of the robots will have a major impact on the competitiveness of companies and countries alike.
Countries with more robotic programmers, and a more sophisticated robotic infrastructure, could be more attractive to manufacturers than countries that offer cheap labour. This will have implications on the competitive dynamics of the global economy, not to mention the job market worldwide.
China is currently the fastest-growing market for imported industrial robotics. It’s a country which has already realised that it is no longer able to compete on low-cost labour alone, as analysts predict a decline in the country’s workforce growth rate, and is looking ahead to how technology can improve their attractiveness in this way.
It’s expected that spending on robot technology will reach a global $65bn by 2025, driven by falling prices and performance improvements. As robots improve in energy efficiency, grow smaller, and cheaper, their range of potential applications will grow.
It is, however, the first adopters of robot technology that stand to gain the highest margins. As with all technological developments, cost advantages will decrease as widespread adoption grows. The early bird, as ever, will catch the worm.
There’s no doubt that robots are our future. Construction and Real Estate will see marked changes to their industry landscapes over the coming years, as robotic technology comes to fruition.
We are seeing the next generation of kids grow up in a fully digitised world, encouraged to learn to code and programming from an early age. John Lewis’s latest JLAB accelerator programme finalists include Robotical, who have created Marty the Robot. Marty is a fully-programmable and customisable walking robot to help kids learn about robotics, 3D printing, and – of course – coding. The fact that such a strong emphasis is being placed on teaching kids these skills to future-proof them for the job market ahead of them, is proof if any were needed that robotics is here to stay.
We just need to work out where we fit in.