How builder bots are taking construction work out of human hands

THEY named it THOR. In a dusty lot in Konz, Germany, an 18-tonne excavator kitted out with sensors and a computer slowly scoops a pile of dirt, hoists it into the air, and dumps it into the back of a nearby truck. Scoop and dump. Scoop and dump.

It’s boring work – and that’s the point, says Daniel Schmidt, who heads up THOR, or the Terraforming Heavy Outdoor Robot project, at the University of Kaiserslautern.

“We’re trying to automate the tasks that excavators are doing,” says Schmidt. “We want to be able to remove operators from tasks that are very cyclic, very monotonous, things like that.”

Schmidt isn’t the only one with an eye on getting bots onto building sites. The trend promises a boost in efficiency and architectural possibilities – but what might it mean for workers?

For THOR, at least, it will be a while before the robot starts working on real projects. In December, it successfully completed tests at Volvo’s test facility for construction equipment – moving piles of material on its own, and creating a trench and a slope.

Construction robots that utilise different materials are also being put through their paces. Flying bots from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) that can weave ropes together to make a bridge will be presented at the Rob Arch conference in Sydney, Australia, in March, as will others that work with concrete or sheet metal.

Some builder bots have already found their way into the real world. In Victor, New York, a company called Construction Robotics offers a semi-automated masonry …

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