UM will lead the research team that will bring VR robots to construction sites

A graduate student at UM operates a KUKA robot similar to those used in the $ 2 million study. // Courtesy of the University of Michigan

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

“Construction is much more dynamic and unpredictable than a factory-like environment, so we’re working to redefine the balance between human workers and robots,” says Carol Menassa, lead researcher on the research team and associate professor. of civil and environmental engineering at UM. “Humans and robots need to live together, 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 the UM College of Engineering and the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning will combine humans with “interactive robot assistants” who observe, listen and learn during the three-year project. .

At the end of the project, the team plans to offer a machine learning system that will allow learning through natural interaction, as well as a series of open access educational tools that will enable human workers to use these systems effectively. It also includes outreach to K-12 schools to create awareness and interest in the potentially renovated construction field that would benefit from this research.

“In addition to the direct benefits to the construction industry, this research can have a broader impact on our built environment,” says Arash Adel, lead co-researcher on the project and assistant professor at UM’s Taubman College of Architecture. and Urbanism.

“Taking advantage of the capabilities of robots, such as their accuracy to perform construction tasks according to the digital plan of the building and their ability to perform non-standard assembly procedures, this research can open up opportunities for feasible construction of high quality new architectures that are too expensive or not at all feasible with current construction practices. “

This system would handle physically cumbersome tasks at a construction site, such as lifting bricks or moving gypsum sheets, while human workers would be responsible for managing tasks or making adjustments when the structure has to deviate from the original plans. .

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

The operator uses a joystick style controller and a pointer to show the system what to do. The operator will command an action and the robot will design the most efficient way to perform the action based on the instructions and present the operator with a sequence of actions called a motion plan to review.

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

Daniel Stone, Barton Malow’s director of innovation, says he hopes increased use of technology can help curb a long-standing labor shortage caused by aging baby boomers and the industry’s reputation. as dirty and dangerous.

“A job where you want to blow your shoulders in a few years by lifting masonry blocks, it’s a difficult thing,” Stone says. “We try to attract a wide range of people to the shops, people interested in technology. When you take on the burden of eliminating people, we can attract new workers and also allow our current workers to expand their professional careers ”.

Vineet Kamat, lead co-researcher on the project and professor of civil and environmental engineering at UM, explains that the training could be extended to the classroom, the workplace and a laboratory where humans could interact with robots in an environment of virtual reality.

“The future of construction works, in particular, is a win-win-win only if it is a fruitful human robot partnership and collaboration to move forward,” says Kamat. “Therefore, we are working to adapt current training methods, which use a combination of classroom training and on-the-job training with a construction teacher offering hands-on training.”