Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Future of Construction Robots

One of the big applications I see for the future of robotics is in construction. Particularly, I think the field is ripe for earth-moving robots. We currently have all the raw materials in the form of large manually-operated construction vehicles from likes of John Deere and Caterpillar. All that is needed are these vehicles to be given electronic controls and put a computer in-charge of their operation.

What makes the task of earth-moving easier from an autonomous robot perspective is that there isn't a lot of activities that require the articulate manipulation of human hands. Most of the activities can be done using large equipment and thus can be done autonomously.

However, there remains an economic return issue that needs to be resolved. Why should a construction company buy one of these autonomous tractors that are complicated to control, only good for a specialized purpose, a potential safety hazard, and a liability instead of just hiring a worker on an hourly wage?

This is something that needs to be addressed, but I think the answer to this question is scale. An autonomous tractor would be useful and economic for very large projects. Suppose you are digging a strip-mine. It would save a lot of money if you put robots in charge of hauling dirt and digging into the earth instead of having to pay humans to do the work *and* have to shut down during the night.

Farming could be another application where an automaton could be of use. There are large expansive farms that require tilling, fertilizing, and harvesting. These farms are often thousands of acres in size. The current method of doing things is only possible with lots of cheap immigrant labor. There could be a niche for a robot if the cost of labor goes up dramatically, or the selling price of crops goes down dramatically. Or maybe yet, a robot could even undercut cheap labor.


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