High above the field at the recent Super Bowl a tiny robot hung in suspense. The robot is mounted on wires and is able to take off and dive in three dimensions, as well as a video camera called SkyCam, is now a major product in sports broadcasting. The new iteration of this technology wants to become the main product of another industry, but instead of pulling the camera and filming football matches, this version will carry and stack bricks.
Developed by an interdisciplinary team of researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, CU-Brick is a cable robot capable of building precise and complex structures in parts. Demonstration projects show the robot sweeping through the air and gently stacking bricks along the base of the wall. Its creators see technology as a potential innovation for the construction industry that can increase the speed, accuracy and safety of construction projects.
Created by Darwin Lau of the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering and Automation and Adam Fingruth of the School of Architecture, CU-Brick moves just like one of those stadium chambers, with four anchors at the corners of the construction site and connecting cables running overhead. Associated with a 3D model of the project, the robot takes a brick in one place and lays it in another until the design is complete.
“Cable robots may seem like something else, but if we think one step back, we can imagine several cranes together,” says Love.
They tested the idea on a larger and larger scale, first with test runs in a 6.5-square-foot lab and then deployed to a temporary structure with 13-foot walls. at the Hong Kong Science Museum. Soon they will use a robot to create a permanent structure on the CUHK campus with walls longer than 30 feet.
This larger project is planned to be built in a few months. The design should become a kind of platform for collecting secondary raw materials and a pavilion for recycling, with built-in cabinets for students to leave old batteries and donate or take reusable items such as books and electronics. The approximately positive shape of the pavilion will have wavy brick walls that unfold at certain points to create storage space for recycling containers. Benches will also be added manually.
The idea is that this design, although not impossible for humans, can be built more accurately using a computer-controlled robot. “It’s about showing what potential there is in design and how we can get the most out of it,” Fingrut says. “It’s becoming a design opportunity.”
It can also make the construction process safer. Lau says the system could eventually be expanded to carry heavier building materials or even entire room-sized modules, reducing or even eliminating the need to carry heavy loads. “We want it to be a safe site. That is the goal. It is safe, but also economically reasonable, ”says Love.
Fingrut says it’s too early to say whether to speed up the CU-Brick construction process, as the demonstration project is more about showing the agility of the system. But both he and Love believe that such automation can make construction faster and cheaper. “The machines we’ve worked with are capable of working non-stop for lunch,” Fingrut says.
CU-Brick does not fully automate the construction process. For the upcycling pavilion project, the system will include a single robot to scan and select bricks. The person will then apply the required amount of mortar depending on the stage of construction, and the CU-Brick will transfer and lay the bricks directly to the location indicated in the 3D model.
Robots are hardly new to the construction world. Automated technologies, such as multi-axis robotic arms, have been used to study the design in which the arm takes individual building blocks and gradually inserts them into the structure either from a fixed point or from a moving base. Flying drones have even been offered as potential helpers for this type of piece building. All of these options have their limitations, from how high they can build, to how heavy building materials can be. CU-Brick, says Lau, “can have more space as well as a good load to carry.”
Fingruth says one of the other benefits of the CU-Brick system is its compact size, especially when existing structures can be used to create four anchor points for cables. “The whole system can be a laptop, and the leftovers fit in a small suitcase or backpack,” he says. Compared to a robot for which a tractor can move from one place to another on a construction site, the CU-Brick is a versatile alternative.
It is also a way to solve the problem of work that worries the global construction industry. For repetitive handicrafts such as laying bricks, robots offer a viable solution.
“It’s not that robots will replace humans, but that there are no people who want to do the job,” says Love.