Japanese robot doesn’t fire lasers, it installs drywall

two legged robot wall builder
Photo Courtesy of AIST

Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) has developed a robot capable of completing simple construction tasks, such as installing drywall.

The prototype robot, called HRP-5P, is a big step forward for automated construction and represents a possible long-term solution to the country’s inevitable manual labor shortage.

How does HRP-5P work?

Designed with a humanoid figure, HRP-5P stands six feet tall and weighs over 200 lbs. The robot uses environmental measurement, object detection, and motion planning technology to assess its surroundings and execute simple tasks. HRP-5P has the highest degree of movement freedom of any of the HRP robots and has an advanced joint drive system that enables it to pick up heavy objects.

AIST’s press release for the new robot includes footage of it approaching a workbench, grabbing a piece of gypsum board, placing it upright against a wall, and drilling it into place. Although slow, HRP-5P appears to move with careful precision and validates one specific conclusion from a 2013 study that put drywalling at a 79% of being replaced by technological advances.

The development of HRP-5P is motivated by Japan’s impending workforce shortage crisis due to a rapidly aging population and declining birth rates. AIST sees humanoid robots as a viable replacement for large human workforces on dangerous construction sites. Although machines like the HRP-5P could lead to future technological unemployment, the institute sees it as a valuable trade-off.

The HRP (Humanoid Robotics Project) series dates back to 1997 and has featured many partnerships between Japan’s AIST and various private organizations, including Kawata Manufacturing Co. and Honda Motor Co.

Generation Alpha and the Future of Tech

The HRP-5P announcement comes during a time when significant funding is flowing into automated construction in the U.S. Back in June, U.S. News reported that employers are trying to fill 225k construction jobs on average every month. Industry is booming but there aren’t nearly enough skilled workers available which has paved the way for major investments.

Built Robotics is a startup developing next-generation autonomous excavators, backhoes, and construction vehicles. Backed by $15M in funding, the company aims to automate monotonous and dangerous construction work, leaving only the activities that require human judgement. Although not yet commercially available, Built Robotics has revealed footage of its driverless excavator working day and night with no driver behind the wheel.

Launched in 2016 by Construction Robotics, SAM is a bricklaying robot that can lay 3,000 bricks in an eight-hour shift, six times faster than its human counterparts. SAM can pick up bricks of different dimensions, apply mortar, and place them independently while moving horizontally along wall. SAM has already built several structures across the country and is currently available for $500k.

Industry powerhouse Caterpillar is also investing heavily in construction site analytics and self-driving construction equipment. In 2015, the company built a progressive mine site in Arizona where it tests autonomous trucks and massive haulers, many times with no operators driving the vehicles. In 2016, CAT invested in ClearPath Robotics which already has a suite of manufacturing robots available for commercial use.

MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has been working on robots that can custom-build carpentry projects. The lab’s AutoSaw system can cut pieces of furniture but leaves assembly to the user. In the future, the lab hopes to automate all aspects of the process in order to democratize access to custom-built furniture.

Would you trust a robot to build your home?

The construction industry is full-speed ahead on creating solutions that address manual labor shortages and the dangerous nature of on-site work. But, it remains to be seen how comfortable society will feel in allowing these technological advancements to move beyond the commercial space and into the private home.

Would you trust a robot to install your drywall? How about build you a cabinet?