The case for autonomous demolition robots

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The construction industry is no stranger to innovation - and autonomous demolition robots are a prime example of how technology is transforming even the most physically demanding tasks. These robots, equipped with sensors and AI, are paving the way for a safer, more efficient, and less disruptive demolition process, writes John Ridgeway.

While the concept of demolition robots isn't entirely new, it was not until recent advancements in AI and sensor technology that they became truly autonomous. The first commercially available models emerged around 2015, primarily from companies like Brokk, Hitachi, and Built Robotics. Since then, their capabilities and applications have steadily expanded.

Where are they used?

Autonomous demolition robots are currently used in a variety of scenarios, particularly for the controlled demolition of buildings in a precise and safe manner, minimising debris and environmental impact.

Other uses include secondary demolition - breaking down structures after primary methods such as explosives have done their work. Robots are also useful for the removal of hazardous materials such as asbestos and lead paint, with minimal risk to human workers. Clearing debris and rubble following natural disasters or accidents is also being more widely used.

While autonomous demolition robots are still relatively new, they have already seen promising applications in various construction projects worldwide such as the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Decommissioning in Japan in 2019.

Here the challenge was to safely dismantle contaminated structures within the heavily damaged nuclear power plant. The solution was to use a Brokk 330 demolition robot, remotely operated, which demolished concrete walls and removed debris with minimal dust generation. This ensured reduced worker exposure to radiation, improved efficiency and facilitated a safer decommissioning progress.

At the Notre Dame Cathedral Renovation in Paris in 2019 unstable and fire-damaged sections of the cathedral's spire were removed while preserving surrounding structures. Once again Brokk 400 and 500 robots were used, equipped with high-precision tools, where they carefully dismantled stonework under strict supervision.

This minimised the risk of further collapse, enabled precise demolition and preserved valuable historical elements.

At the World Trade Center Redevelopment from 2016-2020, robots were used to decommission and dismantle various structures related to the original World Trade Center site. Multiple companies like Brokk, Diamond Robotics, and Remotec provided various demolition robots for tasks such as breaking concrete, cutting steel beams, and handling hazardous materials.

This provided increased safety for workers, improved efficiency in clearing the site and facilitated the construction of new buildings.

Following Hurricane Harvey in 2017, large amounts of debris and damaged structures in Texas needed to be cleared. The GUARDIAN robot, developed by Caterpillar and DARPA, utilised its robust design and remote-controlled capabilities for debris removal and hazardous material handling.

This assisted human crews in clearing affected areas faster, reduced risks associated with manual debris removal and demonstrated the potential for disaster response applications.

Advantages over traditional methods:

It can be demonstrated that robots significantly reduce the risk of injuries or fatalities for human workers, especially in hazardous environments. They can work long hours, tirelessly repeating tasks and complete jobs faster than manual labour.

Advanced sensors and AI enable precise demolition, minimising damage to surrounding structures and infrastructure. Robots can also be equipped with dust suppression systems, resulting in cleaner demolition sites.

Cost Comparison:

However, autonomous demolition robots come with a hefty initial investment, ranging from $500,000 to $2 million depending on size and capabilities. That said, their proponents argue that the benefits outweigh the costs. Reduced labour costs, faster project completion, and minimised safety risks can lead to significant long-term savings.

Market Growth:

The global market for demolition robots is expected to grow significantly in the coming years, with estimations reaching $3.2 billion by 2025. This growth is driven by increasing awareness of safety concerns, stricter regulations, and the pressure for faster and more efficient construction projects.

So we can see that as the technology evolves, we can expect even more sophisticated and versatile autonomous demolition robots taking their place on construction sites around the world – it’s the future.

Sources for further information:

  • Demolition of a steel plant in Duisburg (2019): Hitachi Construction Machinery's ZX350LC-5A robot was indeed used in this project, dismantling a former steel plant efficiently and safely. You can find details on Hitachi's website: https://www.hitachicm.com/global/en/
  • Various demolition projects: The German Association for Construction Machinery and Building Material Technology (Bauma) website features several articles about the use of demolition robots in Germany, including a Brokk robot used for dismantling a bridge: https://bauma.de/en/



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