U-M to Lead Research Team Bringing VR Robots to Construction Sites

The National Science Foundation has announced it is providing $2 million to a University of Michigan-led research team in Ann Arbor to enable robots to learn from workers at construction sites. The goal is to make the industry safer and more attractive to workers.
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A U-M graduate student operates a KUKA robot similar to the ones used in the $2 million study. // Courtesy of the University of Michigan
A U-M graduate student operates a KUKA robot similar to the ones used in the $2 million study. // Courtesy of the University of Michigan

The National Science Foundation has announced it is providing $2 million to a University of Michigan-led research team in Ann Arbor to enable robots to learn from workers at construction sites. The goal is to make the industry safer and more attractive to workers.

“Construction is much more dynamic and unpredictable than an environment like a factory, so we’re working to redefine the balance between human and robot workers,” says Carol Menassa, lead principal investigator of the research team and an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at U-M. “Humans and robots need to coexist, and that’s the premise of what we’re doing right now.”

In collaboration with the University of Florida and Washington State University, researchers from U-M’s College of Engineering and Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning will pair humans with “interactive robot assistants” that watch, listen, and learn during the three-year project.

By the end of the project, the team plans to deliver a machine learning system that will enable that learning through natural interaction, as well as a series of freely available educational tools that will train human workers to use those systems effectively. It also includes outreach to K-12 schools to build awareness and interest in the potentially revamped construction field that would take advantage of this research.

“Besides the direct benefits to the construction industry, this research has the potential to have a broader impact on our built environment,” says Arash Adel, a co-principal investigator on the project and an assistant professor at U-M’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

“By taking advantage of the capabilities of the robots, such as their precision for performing construction tasks according to the digital blueprint of the building and their ability to perform nonstandard assembly procedures, this research might open up opportunities for the feasible construction of high-quality novel architectures that are too expensive or not feasible entirely with current construction practices.”

This system would handle physically strenuous tasks on a construction site such as lifting bricks or moving sheets of drywall, while the human workers would be responsible for task management or making adjustments when the structure needs to deviate from original plans.

It uses a virtual reality (VR) copy of both the jobsite and the robot — called real-time, process level digital twin — which the human operator interacts with through a VR headset, which will present a video game-like clone of the workspace.

A joystick-style controller and a pointer are used by the operator to show the system what needs to be done. The operator will command an action, and the robot devises the most efficient way to accomplish the action based on the instructions and presents the operator with a sequence of actions called a motion plan for review.

The team is collaborating with industry partners, including Barton Malow, the Southfield-based construction management, design-build, program management, general contracting, technology, and equipment installation company.

Daniel Stone, Barton Malow’s director of innovation, says he is hopeful that increased use of technology could help stem a long-standing labor shortage, caused by the aging out of baby boomers and the industry’s reputation as dirty and dangerous.

“A job where you’re going to blow out your shoulders in a few years lifting masonry blocks, that’s a hard sell,” says Stone. “We’re trying to attract a wider range of people to the trades, people who are interested in technology. When you take the burden of lifting off people, we can attract new workers and also enable our current workers to extend their careers.”

Vineet Kamat, a co-principal investigator on the project and a professor of civil and environmental engineering at U-M explains that training might be spread across the classroom, jobsite, and a lab where humans could interact with robots in a virtual reality environment.

“The future of construction work in particular is a win-win-win only if it is a fruitful human robot partnership and collaboration moving forward,” says Kamat. “So, we’re working to adapt current training methods, which use a combination of classroom training and jobsite training with a master construction worker who provides hands-on training.”

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