The use of robotics in construction has been characterized by rapid technological advances in recent years. Various types of robots depending on different needs and purposes have been developed and among them, the research on wearable robots have shown some promising advances with diverse functions. Wearable robots are often referred as exoskeleton, which is used to amplify the power of the human body in many aspects. According to Pons JL, a wearable robot is “a mechatronic system that is designed around the shape and function of the human body, with segments and joints corresponding to those of the person it is externally coupled with”. 1
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The purpose of this review is to offer an overview of the past and current research and project for wearable technology. The review will focus on the technical aspect of wearable technology, analyze questions such as why is wearable technology ideal for labour-intensive industries like the construction industry, and how does wearable technology enhance human capabilities and increase work productivity.
By using a qualitative case study methodology the review, studying on existing projects such as and prototypes under development, the review will identify issues and problems that will the major focus for future research in the field of wearable robot technology.
The technology of wearable robotics was first developed in the 1960s. The Hardiman, a full-body robotic exoskeleton was designed to amplify the wearer’s muscular strength. However, this robot never made it past the prototyping phase because of the uncontrollable motion, lack of stability and issues of the power supply. Due to the technical limitations and inefficient knowledge at the time, the first functional exoskeleton was not ready for the market until the beginning of the 21st century. 2The use of exoskeleton in medical applications also played a crucial role in the development of wearable robotics. the device was then widely used in hospitals and rehabilitation centers as a form of therapy in order to help paralyzed patients with movement disorders caused by spinal cord injury and stroke gain mobility in daily life.
In recent years, the research on wearable robotic technology has become popular in many countries around the world along with the major developments in military and medical applications, while the usage in construction is still rare in the current industry.
The Significance of Wearable Robots in Construction
Due to the rapid development of technology, many researchers believe labour jobs such as those in the construction industry will be gradually replaced by robots in the next decade. Therefore, it is important to find a way to bring people back to site in order to keep human skills and ability involved in the process of construction. Exoskeletons can be seen as a type of sustainable solution to this issue since they “empower human beings rather than aiming at their substitution.” 3 The significance of utilizing wearable robots in the construction industry-besides the impact on productivity at work, is the significant improvement on the physical health and safety of workers by enhancing their capabilities. 3
Since the development of Hardiman in 1960s, the technology on wearable robots has evolved drastically. The very first generation of wearable robots is functioned through a kinematic approach by using position command from the human body and limbs, which results in challenges in balance and motion. The second generation used direct contact between human and the wearable device as the interface, transmitting signals to the device through forces. The third generation integrated both kinematic and dynamic interfaces used in the older generations into a new system, associated with the highest system in the human brain-central nervous system.3 Because of this, the most recent generation of wearable robots has a higher performance compared to other types of robots such as unmanned ground vehicles used in construction sites. The major difference between these two types of robots is that they rely on different systems. Wearable robots like exoskeleton are manipulated directly with human muscle, and human muscle uses highly specialized control systems to perform complicated tasks. While workers manipulate a large-scale device from a distance or indirectly has less flexibility performance in controlling the algorithms.
Case study: Use of wearable robot technology in construction.
Wearable robots can be categorized by the locations on the human body, such as full body, upper limb, and lower limb. A paper was written by research students from Korea University introduced two case studies deal with the application of supernumerary robotic limb (SRL), a wearable robot that provides the user with addition robot arms. The paper identified two common cases in the construction process of a building. The first case includes paneling and ceiling works – works that demand two people in order to achieve the best result and maximum efficiency. 4
The process of ceiling work is complex and requires a high degree of precision. The researchers from Nagoya University in Japan examined similar topics on the benefits of wearable robots in the process of fitting ceiling panels, their research begins by listing the multiple phases in ceiling work, then identify the most complex phases which are the phase of holding the ceiling panel with both hands and place it in a proper plane and position, and the phase of supporting the panel il the drilling work is finished. 5 One of the most important criteria is thus the ability to support ceiling panels and to maintain stability. Stability is maintained through maintaining contact force and the point between the end-effector and the panel to be installed. In order to come up with a design that meets the requirements, the research students from Korea University designed specific experiment on the position change in relation to the contact force for both workers and workers wearing SRL. The result shows that the position change for workers is maximum 170mm, while it is less than 20mm for SRL with end-effector. 4
The second case examined by researchers from Korea University focused on the ability to move and hold materials that are heavy or difficult to hold by one hand. With the use of SRL in dealing with a weight issue, it helps the worker free one hand, thus the worker is able to do other tasks with the freed hand. The experiment designed to test the feasibility of this wearable robot used in construction is similar to the experiment for the first case, the main intent is to test the ability to balance an object by placing a flat panel on SRL. The result of this experiment is also satisfactory; the input angle of 30 degrees was reduced to 5 degrees. From the result, the use of a wearable robot in ceiling work appears to be effective. The process of ceiling work can be completed by one worker with the assistance of SRL. 4
Case Study: Robo-Mate
In order to lighten the load for industry and ease the burden of manual handling tasks for workers, researchers from 12 European organizations decided to initiate the Robo-Mate project. The ultimate objective of Robo-Mate is “putting together an intelligent, easy-to-manoeuvre, wearable exoskeleton for manual-handling work” 5
The paper on the concept and design of the Robo-Mate exoskeleton was presented at the CLAWAR conference in London. One of the module designs that presented apart from the common arm module was the trunk module. The trunk module rests on the hip of the user, connects to two segments: thigh segment and torso segment. 5 The module is designed to reduce the compression forces in the lower back of the worker by applying a supporting torque at the hip, thus applying pressure on both the thigh segment and torso segment. This module has a number of passive joints which provides freedom for the worker to move around. Including all actuators, joints and power supply, the weight is around 12.5kg in total, certainly not the most lightweight model due to the high demand for mobility and flexibility. In the combination with other arm modules, the trunk module is able to achieve a wide range of use in the construction industry. 5
Power Types of Wearable Robots And Usages
Different power types of arm modules have different functions and compatible works. Wearable robots can be categorized into active robots and passive robots based on power type. Active robots are powered using electricity or hydraulic actuators. Because of a large amount of power it provides, this type of wearable robots is suitable for the tasks of heavy-weight handling process such as metal work. The POSCO Technical Research Laboratories from South Korea examined the benefits of using an upper-limb exoskeleton robot in the steel manufactural industry in the aspect of refractory construction. Refractory operations take place in furnaces and kilns which have limited interior working space, and involve some complicated and unstructured tasks. These tasks require the intervention of human intelligence. Therefore the use of an exoskeleton robot for this type of work is ideal and similar to the other robots, it reduces the physical fatigue of workers from heavy workloads. 7
Passive robots do not have an external power source or internal battery. Instead, they utilize resilient components such as spring and elastic components to transfer the heavy loads to the ground. Passive robots are appropriate for tasks including relatively small and light-weight components, such as installing ceiling panels. The researchers from Nagoya University in Japan designed a prototype that uses springs as the passive system. The highlight of the design is the use of both tension and compression springs, which provides an upward resultant force that is used to reduce the load on the the robotic arm due to the weight of the ceiling panel. Due to the low energy consumption, the control method using a passive system is considered to be a more sustainable approach compare to active robots. 6
- Pons JL. Wearable robots: biomechatronic exoskeletons. John Wiley & Sons, 2008.
- “Exoskeleton History”. 2018. Eduexo. https://www.eduexo.com/resources/articles/exoskeleton-history/.
- Linner, Thomas, Mi Pan, Wen Pan, Meysam Taghavi, Wei Pan, and Thomas Bock. 2018. “Identification Of Usage Scenarios For Robotic Exoskeletons In The Context Of The Hong Kong Construction Industry”. Proceedings Of The 35Th International Symposium On Automation And Robotics In Construction (ISARC). doi:10.22260/isarc2018/0006.
- Seo, Wooseok, Chang-Yeob Shin, Juheon Choi, Daehie Hong, and Chang Soo Han. 2016. “Applications Of Supernumerary Robotic Limbs To Construction Works: Case Studies”. Proceedings Of The 33Rd International Symposium On Automation And Robotics In Construction (ISARC). doi:10.22260/isarc2016/0125.
- STADLER, K. S., W. J. ELSPASS, and H. W. VAN DE VENN. 2014. “ROBO–MATE: EXOSKELETON TO ENHANCE INDUSTRIAL PRODUCTION”. Mobile Service Robotics. doi:10.1142/9789814623353_0006.
- Naito, Junpei, Goro Obinata, Atsushi Nakayama, and Kazunori Hase. 2006. “Development Of A Wearable Robot For Assisting Carpentry Workers”. Proceedings Of The 23Rd International Symposium On Automation And Robotics In Construction. doi:10.22260/isarc2006/0098.
- Yu, Ho, Il Seop Choi, Kyung-Lyong Han, Jae Yeon Choi, Goobong Chung, and Jinho Suh. 2018. “Development Of A Upper-Limb Exoskeleton Robot For Refractory Construction.”