April 20, 2024
This robotic digger could construct the buildings of the future


Construction is a tough job, and in Europe there is a chronic shortage of workers to build the homes, schools, and roads we use every single day. So why not get a robot to do the hard work so we don’t have to?

That’s exactly what researchers at ETH Zurich’s Robotic Systems Lab in Switzerland are working on. They’ve trained an autonomous excavator to construct stone walls using boulders weighing several tonnes — without any human interference. In the machine’s first assignment, it built a six metre-​high and 65 metre-long loading bearing wall. If scaled, the solution could to pave the way for faster, more sustainable construction.  

Using LiDAR sensors, the excavator autonomously draws a 3D map of the construction site and identifies existing building blocks and stones for the wall. Specifically designed tools and machine vision (the ability of a computer to see) enable the excavator to scan and grab large stones in its immediate environment. It can also register their approximate weight as well as their centre of gravity. 

An algorithm then determines the best position for each stone, and the excavator places each piece in the desired location to within a centimetre of accuracy. The autonomous machine can place 20 to 30 stones in a single consignment – about as many as one delivery could supply.

researcher looks at computer with image of 3d model of wall