8 Startups Building Robotic Construction Workers
The construction industry sits at an interesting crossroads in 2017. One of the highest-grossing in the world – $10 trillion in 2016 – it is also one of the last industries to innovate technologically and one most desperately in need of doing so. Add on the fact that it’s the most dangerous in terms of workplace fatalities – 924 cases in 2015, the highest level since 2008 – *and* that it is now facing a shortage of skilled labor, and you have an industry that needs innovation and new thinking in pretty much every aspect.
The answer to almost all of these problems lies, of course, in our future robot overlords. Though the immediate reaction to autonomous equipment in construction is sometimes one of disdain – what about the jobs you’re replacing? – further examination sheds new light on the many benefits. Not to mention the fact that all of these automatons need humans in order to operate effectively.
It’s not hard to imagine a future where a building is constructed entirely in a digital world which people explore in virtual reality. Once everyone likes what they see, someone pushes a “build” button and the robot construction workers are dispatched to an empty plot of land (on Mr. Musk’s autonomous trucks of course) where they do what human construction workers do today when they arrive at a new site – smoke some weed, tell off-color jokes, and put in an honest day’s work like real men do. (Did you know that in Australia, the industry with the least amount of female representation is construction at 88.3% male? In the USA, women in construction are even fewer. So until we have equality, this one’s for all the lads out there pounding nails and breakin ’em.)
Let’s take a look at 8 startups developing cool futuristic toys like exoskeletons, mapping drones, and self-driving earthmovers that will propel the construction industry into the future.
Ekso Bionics, founded in 2005 in Richmond, CA, has $70 million in funding and possibly the coolest technology of the bunch. A pioneer in the field of robotic exoskeletons, Ekso makes wearable exoskeletons that augment strength, endurance, and mobility. (We’ve covered Ekso a few times before—here, here, and here.) Its ZeroG robotic arms reduce the repetitive-stress injuries inherent in construction work. The mounted-arm exoskeleton attaches to tools like rivet busters, grinders, and rotary hammers, absorbing the bucking and kicking that occurs regularly with such heavy-duty tools.
If you want to see one of these bionic arms go up against a human in a head-to-head showdown, take 60 seconds to watch this clip.
Taking Stock with Drones
You won’t see many construction workers flying around a job site today unless you drop a few hits of Purple Jesus, but all signs point to drones being a staple on construction sites of the future. Since drones are really just flying robots, we decided to include one example from among many that can be found in the drone mapping space. Silicon Valley-based Kespry was founded in 2013 and has $28.3 million in funding so far to develop their drone technology which they refer to as an “aerial intelligence platform”. Kespry offers a complete solution for surveying, mapping, and analyzing large-scale work sites such as quarries, construction material sites, and mining operations. Providing hardware, software, and cloud services, Kespry offers one simple, automated solution from start to finish.
Site managers create a mission on a supplied iPad, a drone calculates the flight path and flies autonomously, data is transferred and processed wirelessly, and the resulting report is delivered within minutes. The company has already established a sizable customer list including Whitaker Contracting whom had a previously two-day measuring project shrink down to 10 minutes.
Built Robotics is almost brand-new (founded in 2016) but is already making a name for itself with loads of media coverage when it emerged from stealth just last month. The San Francisco-based company has taken in $15 million in funding from Founders Fund and New Enterprise. Started by an ex-Google engineer, Built Robotics took the sensors from self-driving cars and retrofitted them into construction equipment. The result: robot tractors:
Using software designed specifically for construction and earthmoving, Built allows operators to program coordinates, then stand off to the side and let the machines do the rest. The company even specially designed LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) and GPS sensors that can withstand the intense vibrations of excavation. Despite (or maybe because of) its youth, Built Robotics has already established itself at the cutting edge of autonomous construction innovation. Our next company may have something to say about that.
Based out of Oakland California, Cooper Gray Robotics has taken in an undisclosed amount of funding to develop electric skid-steer loaders (little bulldozers) that can operate autonomously in dangerous environments like forest fires, mining sites, in the holds of ships, or even construction sites. There isn’t a ton of information out there about how close they are to selling these machines, but this photo leads us to believe that they’ll be remote controlled to start:
Breathe easy boys, your job is safe for now.
Raising a Building in Two Days
While this article is about startups, we couldn’t help but include this next company which you can actually buy shares in if you open up a free account with Interactive Brokers. It’s a young up-and-comer called Fastbrick Robotics (ASX:FBR), an Australian company founded in 2015. After taking in $10 million in funding, Fastbrick went public with their robotic bricklaying machine called Hadrian X seen below:
The first step in its eventual “digital construction system”, Hadrian X can construct the walls of an average-sized building in two days. The very-fun-to-watch video of Hadrian in action makes it easy to see why the company is so bullish about its future. What’s more, behemoth Caterpillar has invested $2 million in Fastbrick and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has signed a memorandum of understanding to build a minimum of 50,000 homes by 2022. If you want to learn more about robots laying bricks, we’ve got you covered with our article on Robot Brickmasons and a Robotic Bricklaying Stock.
Two Thousand Square Feet in One Day
Cazza was founded in 2016 (sensing a trend here?) in San Francisco and has $2 million in total funding. Specializing in 3D printing technologies for construction companies, Cazza’s ‘minitanks’ are 3D printing cranes that can lay just over 2,000 square feet of concrete each day. The Cazza machines are mobile and remotely operated and, once delivered to a worksite and hooked up to a concrete supply, are ready to print within 30 minutes. They can even be programmed beforehand to pause for electrical wiring and plumbing to be installed.
The company recently announced that its machines will build the world’s first 3D-printed skyscraper in the United Arab Emirates. If you’re more into building with wood, then you’ll want to check out this next startup.
Remember how we mentioned earlier this notion of a “build” button you push and isht just happens? The closest thing to that might be Maryland startup Blueprint Robotics which was founded in 2015 and has taken in an undisclosed amount of funding to create a 200,000 square foot factory full of home-making robots that build prefabricated walls, roofs and floors. Now we haven’t been in the factory or anything, but they have a video that shows some amazing robotics technology. We know you busy people don’t have 7 minutes to watch the entire video, so we’ll start it at where the cool stuff happens. Watch this video for 60 seconds. See how precise the robots are able to cut and trim the materials? All you have to do is provide them a CAD file with all the design details and they’ll quote you a price and deliver on it in just a few days.
It all ships on a standard flatbed truck, just like the ones Mr. Musk is building. As of now, they have a team of humans that will assemble all the pieces for you on site. All you need to do is finish the roofing and then paint the walls. That’s where our next startup comes into play.
Paint Walls 30X Faster
Founded in 2015, Indian startup Endless Robotics has taken in a small $100,000 round to build “intelligent robots to solve dull and dirty problems for construction, maintenance and smart city management“. Long story short, they’ve built a robot called WALT that can paint walls up-to 30 times faster than an average painter at a speed of about 60 square feet per minute. It can handle heights from 8ft to 14ft, but still needs lots of human supervision. It’s not for sale though, since they plan to use the robot to offer their own painting service. Maybe if they upload a video of their robot painting some walls we can link it to this article and they’ll get loads of leads for new jobs.
Last but not least is the vowel-averse startup Asmbld, based in San Francisco and founded in 2014 with undisclosed funding. Asmbld is focused on the concept of reusable buildings—disassembling rather than demolishing. The company wants buildings and their parts to become movable products that evolve in cycles, like cars. To achieve this vision, they’re designing new assembly methods using robotics that will, among other things, enable building components to be assembled rather than glued together, allowing for reusability in other buildings and resale in other markets. They’re a bit thrifty with specifics at this point, but this piece they did on “robotically reconfigurable interiors” hints at a future where a robot will rearrange your living space on demand.
A study by McKinsey earlier this year found construction to be one of the most stagnant industries in the world, with productivity growing just 1 percent a year over the past two decades. When its growth rate catches up with that of the total economy – an eventuality analysts feel sure of – an estimated $1.6 trillion will be added to its value. That’s a chunk of potential change hard to ignore and, judging by the number of companies popping up to have a stake in it, the robot-ization of construction has begun in earnest.
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