Construction could take just two weeks – and two workers – when ‘road test’ issues are fixed
A UK-engineered construction robot that’s able to build using traditional bricks, blocks and mortar could get a commercial launch within six months, pending further trials.
The Automatic Brick Laying Robot (ABLR), developed by Yorkshire-based Construction Automation, is already patent approved for the US and is the first of its type able to build around corners, which means it can construct an entire house without stopping.
The machine is currently on site erecting Britain’s first ever robot-built home, a 18,000ft2, three-bedroom house in Everingham. Work on the house began at the end of September and was due to complete within two weeks, however teething problems with the technology have caused delays.
Company co-founder David Longbottom says: ‘We're about 20% of the way through the house. We've had minor issues with the lasers picking up dust from the Manitou driving past and with the track sinking a bit. But we see this as like a road test for a new car, to find out where the problems are and then fix them.’
The ABLR sits on a 9m high vertical lift frame mounted on a track. It was developed, over four years, to handle familiar house building materials to avoid issues around certification, insurance and mortgage valuations.
A sophisticated software control system reads digitised versions of architects’ plans in the 3D CAD package SolidWorks, and instructs the robot precisely where to lay the blocks, bricks and mortar as it rises up the side of a building, layer by layer.
Just two people are required to complete each house: a labourer to load bricks and mortar into the robot, and a skilled person who works from the tower installing tie bars, damp courses and lintels, and doing pointing. This ability to ‘ride lift’ eliminates the need for access scaffolding.
Traditional bricks vary in size, due to the kilning process. The system accommodates this irregularity by positioning bricks at predefined centres then pumping mortar into the varying gaps in between. ‘If we didn't do that, after 10 bricks, we'd lose the mortar gap all together,’ says Longbottom. A laser ensures horizontal alignment.
The worker mounted on the robot monitors progress and receives alerts on a tablet when key procedures, for example installation of components such as tie bars or insulation, need doing. The machine takes a photograph of the completed task to form an as-built digital record of quality.
The robot is designed to carry 56 bricks at a time, enough to cover one full course on one side of a house before it is reloaded at the corner. Mortar is pumped from a hopper on the ground up a pipe to the tower and into the extruder.
‘In the future we see the robot being delivered to site in a container, including all the parts, the track and the generators etc,’ says Longbottom. ‘The track will come in different sections that are laid out to suit the specific geometry of the house.’
Once the house at Everingham is finished, the plan is to carry out further tests at a site opposite the factory before attempting a ‘speed record’ building a property similar to the one now under way.
The machine is ISO approved and, according to Longbottom, European and UK patents are expected soon. It is hoped to have a commercially available product in three to six months.
Construction robots are often characterised as killers of traditional trades, but Longbottom has a very different take on the technology: ‘The fact is the UK is chronically short of bricklayers, hence the current drive towards prefabrication and offsite manufacture. I'm hoping this will actually attract more students into the industry. The ability to build a house using a tablet rather than a trowel takes a lot the physical work out of it, but you still need skilled people to understand how to tie bars, and install damp courses and insulation etc.’