Robots are heading for a construction site near you

Words:
Stephen Cousins

They can lay bricks and tie rebar much more quickly than humans, as an exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh reveals

Dream section of the Robots exhibition.
Dream section of the Robots exhibition. Credit: Plastiques Photography, courtesy of the Science Museum

In case your human brain was too slow to compute it, the robotic revolution is already taking hold of construction and a raft of autonomous and semi-autonomous machines are set to hit sites soon.

The bricklaying robot Hadrian X, by Australian firm Fastbrick Robotics, proved last year that it could erect the brick shell of a 180m2, three-bedroom house in under three days and in line with current regulations. The rebar-tying robot Tybot can match the speed of six to eight site workers, with only one worker required to supervise.

Bionic exoskeleton suits that augment the wearer’s strength are already in use, but the Guardian XO Max full body exoskeleton, launched by Sarcos last year, will fully propel construction into the realms of the sci-fi film Aliens.

Humanity’s 500-year quest to reimagine ourselves as machines is explored in Robots, a major new exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

It features a collection of more than 100 machines, from the earliest clockwork automata to those of science fiction to modern-day research labs, with a focus on humanoid machines that interact in human-like ways.

  • Animatronic baby.
    Animatronic baby. Credit: Plastiques Photography, courtesy of the Science Museum
  • Entrance to the Robots exhibition.
    Entrance to the Robots exhibition. Credit: Plastiques Photography, courtesy of the Science Museum
  • Baxter, a working robot.
    Baxter, a working robot. Credit: Plastiques Photography, courtesy of the Science Museum
  • Dream section of the Robots exhibition.
    Dream section of the Robots exhibition. Credit: Plastiques Photography, courtesy of the Science Museum
  • Build section of the Robots exhibition with ROSA in the foreground.
    Build section of the Robots exhibition with ROSA in the foreground. Credit: Plastiques Photography, courtesy of the Science Museum
  • Prosthetic arms  and hands in the Robots exhibition..
    Prosthetic arms and hands in the Robots exhibition.. Credit: Plastiques Photography, courtesy of the Science Museum
  • Cygan, a 1957 robot.
    Cygan, a 1957 robot. Credit: Plastiques Photography, courtesy of the Science Museum
  • Model of Maria in the Dream section of the Robots exhibition.
    Model of Maria in the Dream section of the Robots exhibition. Credit: Plastiques Photography, courtesy of the Science Museum
  • Kodomoroid, a Japanese android who reads the news.
    Kodomoroid, a Japanese android who reads the news. Credit: Plastiques Photography, courtesy of the Science Museum
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Construction-related exhibits include footage and archive material on NASA's research robot Valkyrie, currently being developed by a team of international scientists including members of the Centre for Robotics in Edinburgh. Valkyrie is expected play a key role in the colonisation of Mars, travelling to the red planet ahead of humans to help set up a base. The combination of a 3D vision system and dexterous limbs could enable it to carry out delicate tasks such as carrying and moving objects.

The earliest examples of robots in the exhibition are automata and clockwork machines, including a 400-year-old mechanical spider designed to scuttle across the floor to amaze, or disgust, guests. A clockwork cabbage-eating rabbit was one of the most popular automata styles of the late 19th and early 20th century and the one shown here can be run by visitors.

We might finally be entering an era when our dreams of robotic helpers are becoming reality, but that’s not always in the ways we anticipated.

  • RoboThespian.
    RoboThespian. Credit: The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum
  • Nexi robot.
    Nexi robot. Credit: The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum
  • LUCY in the Robots exhibition.
    LUCY in the Robots exhibition. Credit: Plastiques Photography, courtesy of the Science Museum
  • Visitors looking at iCub.
    Visitors looking at iCub. Credit: Plastiques Photography, courtesy of the Science Museum
  • REEM Service Robot.
    REEM Service Robot. Credit: The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum
  • Three early REEM prototype robots.
    Three early REEM prototype robots. Credit: Plastiques Photography, courtesy of the Science Museum
  • Visitors in the Build section of Robots.
    Visitors in the Build section of Robots. Credit: Plastiques Photography, courtesy of the Science Museum
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Tacye Phillipson, senior curator of modern science at National Museums Scotland says: ‘Ideas are coming through in different ways than people predicted in the past. Sci-fi novels once talked about humanoid robots doing the vacuuming, now we have compact robots on wheels that do the job.

‘Airplane autopilots and self-driving cars currently in development are a step away from the idea that a humanoid robot would get in and take the controls. There's a beautiful intermingling between science fiction and science fact; science has often solved the problem but not quite in the ways we imagined.’

Robots runs until 5 May.


 

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