Navigant Research Blog

Automated Taskforce Developments Inching Forward

— April 8, 2016

police unmanned aerial vehicleDrones—also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs—are quickly becoming commonplace in today’s world, performing such tasks as delivery, surveillance, and agricultural monitoring. Drones are not the only robotics coming to the forefront, however. The DARPA Robotics Challenge encourages teams to make humanoid robots that can accomplish certain tasks. Last year’s finals took place in June of 2015. The goal of the DARPA competition, aside from gazing in awe at the future, is to further advance robotics.

Following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan, it became clear that there is a need for robots that can perform emergency tasks when it is unsafe for humans to enter an area. The DARPA competition had robots performing “eight tasks relevant to disaster response, among them driving alone, walking through rubble, tripping circuit breakers, turning valves and climbing stairs.” There are certain tasks that are impossible, unnecessary, or unsafe for humans to perform—robots are marching forward to fill that gap.

Filling the Gap

Many companies are also developing advanced robots for purposes of their own. For example, Apple recently unveiled Liam, a robot designed to disassemble iPhones for recycling. Liam has been in production for over 3 years, largely in secret. It was revealed at Apple’s spring 2016 product launch. The machine has 29 freestanding robotic arms, each designed to remove a piece of the iPhone. The machine has not been perfected yet—it has not been proven at full scale and is currently only functional for only iPhone 6s models. However, Liam represents a broader shift in clean technology. Companies are increasingly relying on robotics for assembly and, in Apple’s case, disassembly of products.

In turn, consumers are demanding more sustainable and recycled goods. Current recycling can be extremely inefficient, often involving a great deal of human labor. As a result of inefficient recycling, e-waste production in 2012 rose to a whopping 50 million tons according to United Nations estimates. A shift toward more robotics will make separation of recycling easier, faster, and more energy efficient, ultimately leading to an increase in post-consumer recycled goods.

The idea of robots rendering humans obsolete is one that has been played out in science fiction across the years. But we are entering an age where we can address the needs of a technology-dependent society with technology. The Industrial Revolution brought with it an unprecedented boom in human population as well as clouds of coal-fired pollution. The increasing popularity of personal, small-scale computing technology brought increased productivity and advancements in science, as well as a massive spike in toxic electronic waste. Nuclear power has brought electricity to millions, as well as horrifically dangerous disasters. It seems as though we are finally filling the technological gaps and patching the disadvantages of past technological advancements. Who would have guessed it might be by fitting a robot-shaped bandage over a machine-shaped hole?


Drones or Data for Facilities Management?

— March 7, 2016

Luftbild einer Windkraftanlage mit Drohne Rotorblatt Wartung InspektionThe potential benefits of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones, have received a lot of attention as more and more applications have been identified. In addition to their continued use in warfare, drones are emerging as a useful tool for everything from wind turbine inspection to stopping poachers and spotting sharks. The seemingly infinite possibilities for drones have now extended to commercial buildings, where they can be used to provide visual inspections of hard-to-access spaces.

The use of drones by facilities managers seems like a smart move. Technicians no longer need dangerous ladders or expensive scaffolding to inspect the conditions of their facilities. However, drones are not the transformative change that facilities management needs. Physical inspection is the old way of thinking—it has been a necessity driven by technological limitations. Though drones now present the opportunity to enhance the process, the process itself is fundamentally flawed. While not as flashy, advances in building energy management systems (BEMSs) create the promise of technology’s ability to change the maintenance paradigm.

Data, Not Drones

The problem is not in drones, but rather, in a management strategy that relies on periodic visual inspection. Facilities managers will only find problems if they are looking for them, but that’s not a guarantee that these problems will be found before they affect operations. The inspector needs to know what to look for, the problem has to have symptoms that can be seen visually, and the inspections need to occur regularly.

Even if the manual process of drone inspection does properly identify problems, maintenance to address those problems still needs to be scheduled. The more sophisticated solution is to rely on building data. By understanding how a building operates and monitoring for deviations from that baseline, problems can be automatically identified. Moreover, fault detection from building data can be directly integrated into workforce management software so that the labor needed to address problems is actually performed.

Vendor Challenges

The challenge for vendors of building systems is that building owners and operators don’t have much of an appetite for reducing operating costs through capital investment. After all, paying for the installation and integration of sensors now may provide cost savings in the future. On the other hand, those savings might never be realized. Or that conversation could never happen because investment is focused on business operations to grow revenue rather than to cut the cost of operating the building.

As a result, the idea of inspections with a drone are promising because they do not require capital investment, yet produce some operational savings. They are also flashy new pieces of technology with lots of buzz. However, investment in BEMSs provides a meaningful alternative strategy to the management of operations and maintenance. What’s more, unlike drones, BEMSs have the ability to shift operations and maintenance procedures from a reactive process to proactive approach.


Is It a Bird? Is It a Plane? Or Is It a Drone?

— March 4, 2016

droneIsaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics have dominated technology-based science fiction since they were first published in 1942. The laws state:

  1.  A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2.  A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

These laws are generally cited as an important starting point under every highly technological society. Drones are becoming an increasing presence across the world. The machines have applications in many sectors: delivery services, monitoring of remote areas, agriculture, military use, and, of course, extreme selfie camera mode. And yet, with the increasing popularity of drone technology, there has been a huge disconnect around the understanding of drone law.

There have been many innovative methods proposed to control drone technology. The Metropolitan Police in London is considering using eagles to take down drones, a method piloted in the Netherlands. This is meant to prevent drones flying illegally in airspace or protected areas. However, there has been outcry against this endeavor, with the director of the International Centre of Birds of Prey in Gloucestershire calling the plan a gimmick. In the United States, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS, the legal term for drones) are governed by the Federal Aviation Administration, with the primary concern of keeping UAS away from pilots.

A Question of Regulation

With such a hullabaloo already stirred up by drone technology, what can we expect if technological development continues to outpace regulation and legal enforcement? Drones used for questionable purposes are on the rise. In England and Wales, the number of drones found in or near prisons increased from zero in 2013 to 35 in 2015. These drones were found carrying drugs, smartphones, and USB drives. This activity is not due to lack in regulation, but rather a lack of enforcement and education. People receiving drones as Christmas presents are often unaware of how they must be piloted and registered, and for what purposes different drone classes are allowed to be used.

The solution to drone problems is not yet clear. One thing is certain: with current human policing methods, the rate of drone development is likely to outpace the rate of drone regulation. Advanced regulatory technology is highly likely to be the solution. Whether or not this entails an Asimovian set of programmed rules that all UAS must follow is up for debate.

Fortunately, drones are not as autonomous or self-governing as the robots in an Asimov book—but what might the revised rules for drones look like as technological capabilities advance?

  1.  A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2.  A robot must adhere to all current government registrations, regulations, and prohibitions except where such adherence would conflict with the First Law.
  3.  A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First or Second Laws. 
  4.  A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second or Third Laws.

A Bird’s Eye View of the Construction Sector

— March 13, 2015

From mysteriously hovering over the Paris skyline to enabling extrajudicial executions to repairing and maintaining power grids, unmanned flying drones are finding more and more uses. Recent rules from the FAA establishing a regulatory framework for the fledgling technology has limited many commercial uses. Amazon’s plan to deliver packages by drone may be grounded for now, but applications of drones in the construction industry hold promise.

The current capabilities of drones, namely the ability to fly and take pictures, make them well-suited to create as-built drawings of buildings. Often, as buildings are constructed, the original design has to be modified based on conditions in the field. In order to be useful for operations and maintenance, these drawings need to be accurate and up-to-date. Unfortunately, the accuracy and completeness of as-built drawings are often lacking. Drones could provide a way to document what gets installed behind the walls of a building as those walls go up. Artificial intelligence and image processing could nearly eliminate the role of people in the process.

The Sky Is the Limit

As drone capabilities expand, so too will their role in construction. The Swiss architecture firm Gramazio Kohler Architects has used quadcopters to build a structurally stable tower out of blocks. The drones are able to collaborate and communicate through an algorithm that directs the drones to avoid collisions and optimizes the path for fast payload pickup and release.

A day where drones are used to replace manual labor in the construction of buildings may not be far behind. Construction equipment maker Komatsu has already unveiled plans for unmanned bulldozers and excavators to dig holes and move earth autonomously using data from drones. Currently, the unmanned equipment will mainly operate along preprogrammed routes and have human operators able to take control if necessary. But automating more of the unskilled construction tasks is one step closer to reality.

Do Robots Dream of Electric Masonry Saws?

Though drones are a visible step toward construction automation, they will not be the only robots on the job site. Both R-O-B Technologies and Construction Robotics have developed prototypes of robotic bricklayers. Using robotic arms, rather than drones, the demonstrations have yielded faster production than human workers with high levels of accuracy and precision. Moreover, robots can make construction sites safer. With 796 fatal work injuries in the United States during 2013, construction is one of the deadliest professions. Replacing human labor with robot labor holds promise for a safer future.


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