University of Michigan Researches Robot Assistants for Job Sites

Red robot / Image by DavidRockDesign from Pixabay
Published On
Apr 20, 2022

Construction job sites just may be the new workplace for another category of workers: robots.

Construction work poses many safety risks. It can be dangerous and vigorous while requiring heavy lifting, working in high heat, on tall structures and handling rough materials. What if we could program robots to assist humans and perform tasks without risk to human life and the bodily strain that construction work demands?

The University of Michigan is studying robots that would work alongside human workers in construction.

With a $2 million research grant funded by the National Science Foundation, the University of Michigan took on a three-year project that seeks to pair humans with “interactive robot assistants.” The robots will employ technology that will allow them to “learn” from humans by watching and listening as if they were live apprentices journeying up to a full performance skill level.

Safety first

The objective is to place robots in situations that would otherwise pose a danger to human life and possibly cause injury from bodily strain, heights, environmental conditions and other factors.

To train the robots, a digital twin would be used. A digital twin mirrors the real-life environment, virtually, allowing a human to tweak necessary inputs to the robot, based on needed parameters. Specifically, a virtual reality (VR) environment of the job site would be used to program robots with a human operator interacting with the robot through an Oculus-style VR headset. A human would have a controller, such as a joystick, that would tell the robot’s system what to do. The robot may pick up a load of bricks (ordinarily out of the lift capability of a human and without the risk of strain) or hang large sheets of drywall that might require two people instead of one robot. Through these interactions, the robot would eventually learn what to do.

Intelligence deployed

The robots could be trained and programmed to find the most efficient pathway for performing a task, but they may also have an engineering drawing or blueprint as “input” to follow. The robot could also be used to perform repetitive work, execute tasks¾without a lunch break¾for long hours and accomplish duties that would free up human workers to focus their attention elsewhere. The human workers could also work alongside one or more robots and produce a greater output than if they did it themselves. This would open new jobs and skills for human construction workers to learn and use. In short, it opens many new possibilities that the research team has yet to explore.

About the Author

Jim Romeo

Freelance Writer

Jim Romeo is a freelance writer based in Chesapeake, Va. He focuses on business and technology topics. Find him at www.JimRomeo.net.

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