22 December 2018
Science fiction often generates the ideas for innovation in the real world. One common trope of science fiction is the autonomous construction drone that builds pre-designed structures which are useful to humans. Looking around at the construction industry, nearly all construction is still done with humans or human-operated machines. This video gives a rundown of all the construction robots currently on the market. Most, however, have not left the lab yet.
There are two obvious reasons why automated construction would be both beneficial and profitable. First, construction companies are having a hard time finding workers, especially skilled craft workers, leaving a large hole in the market for drones to fill. Second, the demand for affordable housing is outpacing supply. Based on this report if you could get a robot (or team of robots) to do most of the foundations, framing, and exterior, you’d be able to reduce the cost of building a house by about 30% (assuming about three-fourths the money was spent on labor). While the shortage of affordable housing is a function of more than just building costs, a 30% reduction in building costs will go a long way to making housing more affordable.
So far I’ve mostly focused on housing, but there would be a lot of adjacent work that construction drones could do with some minor modifications. Things like commercial construction, infrastructure, welding, excavation, and mining would all be impacted. Personally, I think underwater welding could be one of the biggest markets because it’s one of the most dangerous jobs (key search word is “Delta P”). Also just thought I’d mention, I’ve seen some videos of ultra-cheap 3d printed concrete houses, and I think 3d printing will also have a role in automated construction.
In the vein of SpaceX, autonomous construction on Earth would only be a first step to something larger. When we’re able to consistently and cheaply get cargo to Mars, construction drones would be the first and arguably most important cargo shipped to the red planet, as they would lay the infrastructure to human colonization using locally available materials. Additionally, construction drones would probably be extremely useful in mining asteroids, which would be key to further space colonization. Another step after colonizing mars and mining asteroids could be the disassembling of Mercury into a Dyson swarm-like megastructure around the Sun, which could in turn make Mars much more habitable by melting the Martian polar ice caps (not to mention giving Earth a near inexhaustible supply of energy).