The Real Deal New York

Here’s why NYC’s construction industry isn’t crazy about robots

Experts say it’s still too early to introduce robots onsite
By Konrad Putzier | February 26, 2018 02:50PM

Illustration by Daniel Nyari

A remote-controlled demolition robot knocking down New York City structures in broad daylight might sound like the stuff of science fiction, but it happened just a few weeks ago at the corner of 33rd Street and 10th Avenue. And it was done to make way for Related Companies’ 30 Hudson Yards.

The machine’s creator is Brokk — a 35-year-old company based near Seattle that manufactures remote-controlled demolition machines traditionally used in the mining industry. And it was employed by AECOM Tishman, the general contractor on the 90-story office tower project. AECOM has a robotics task force that identifies usable technology and brings it to its sites, said Michael Lorenzo, the firm’s director of emerging technologies.

Still, so far construction workers donning hard hats have little to worry about in New York, where these construction robots are still rare.

But a few startups are looking to bring more robots to the construction industry.

Barrett said his firm has had talks with the architectural tech consultancy Asmbld about mobile robots that paint walls and pour concrete and is considering investing in joint research and design. But, as of now, the construction giant isn’t using any of the machines on its projects.

“We’re cautious about introducing robots into our job sites because you really have to design your work to that,” Barrett said, explaining that robots could disrupt workflows.

Lorenzo argued that construction robots will only really take off when they’re equipped with AI and can safely navigate construction sites. “Once we get to the point where robots are able to analyze a situation and actually see what’s in front of them, that’s probably when we’ll have robots on the job site,” he said.

“At this point in time it’s really very much path-driven robotics where one robot is used for demo, one robot is used for bricklaying, et cetera,” Lorenzo added.

The deeper concern for the construction industry — not to mention for the broader economy and workforce — is what smarter robots would mean for employment.

PricewaterhouseCoopers recently estimated that 38 percent of all U.S. jobs are at risk of being lost to automation by 2030 — a glaring statistic with serious implications for real estate. And, according to a recent report by the public policy think tank Center for an Urban Future, painting, construction and maintenance has the sixth-highest potential for automation among 25 major occupations in New York.

Jose Cruz, director of virtual design and construction at the construction services firm UA Builders Group, predicted that in the coming decade the construction industry will see more machines doing repetitive tasks, such as laying bricks, at sites that are still overseen by human workers. New York-based Construction Robotics already produces the bricklaying robot dubbed SAM100 (short for semiautonomous mason), which has a robotic arm that takes bricks from a tray, applies mortar and places them on a wall without human involvement.)

“I think right now construction robotics is in its nascent stages.” Cruz said.

Check out the complete version of this cover story in the February 2018 issue