Freelance journalist Gabriel Popkin and host Sarah Crespi discuss what will happen to ash trees in the United States as federal regulators announce dropping quarantine measures meant to control the emerald ash borer—a devastating pest that has killed tens of millions of trees since 2002.
Instead of quarantines, the government will use tiny wasps known to kill the invasive beetles in hopes of saving the ash. Sarah also talks with Pavel Chvykov, a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, about the principles for organizing active matter—things like ant bridges, bird flocks, or little swarms of robots.
Beetles are virtually crash resistant. Their wings fold up when they collide with objects, and then quickly spring back into place. That helps the insects stay on course and fly straight, rather than spiral to the ground, while exerting little energy. Researchers have now built a winged robot that mimics this capability.
The “beetlebot” keeps flying, even after it crashes into poles, researchers report this month in Science. The energy-efficient robot could even navigate narrow environments, such as collapsed buildings, to aid rescue missions, the team says.
There’s a lot of buzz around self-driving cars, but autonomous-driving technology could revolutionize a different industry first — construction. That industry hasn’t changed much over the last several decades, according to some experts, making it an ideal candidate for automation.
“The way we build today is largely unchanged from the way we used to build 50 years ago,” said Gaurav Kikani, vice president of Built Robotics. “Within two years, I think we’re really going to turn the corner, and you’re going to see an explosion of robotics being used on construction sites.”
The industry is also faced with a labor shortage that the Covid-19 pandemic has further complicated. “Covid is making people step back and say, ‘hey, the way we’ve been doing things for a long time is just not sustainable,’” said Kevin Albert, founder and CEO of Canvas. “It is just a wake-up call for the industry.”
Canvas is one of several companies working on autonomous construction technology. Big players like Caterpillar and Komatsu, and start-ups like SafeAI and Built Robotics, see value in using autonomous machines to accelerate construction projects. The mining industry was one of the first to employ the use of self-driving tech.
Caterpillar began its first autonomy program more than 30 years ago. The company now has the largest fleet of autonomous haul trucks. Caterpillar says it’s hauled 2 billion metric tons in just over six years. Built Robotics is a San Francisco-based start-up founded by an ex-Google engineer that already has machinery out in the field. It’s automated several pieces of equipment, such as bulldozers and excavators.
“You can now collapse your construction timeline so you can knock out work overnight so that it’s ready for your human workers in the morning to speed them along,” Kikani said. SafeAI is another Silicon Valley start-up. It recently teamed up with Obayashi for a pilot program. It’s been retrofitting equipment like dump trucks, bulldozers and loaders. Robots are also helping inside.
San Francisco-based Canvas created an autonomous machine for finishing drywall and has worked on projects like the San Francisco International Airport and Chase Arena. Humans work alongside its robotic system. “Drywall is very hard work on the body,” Albert said. “And we’ve seen that 1 out of every 4 workers has to end their career early because of injuries. This will create longer careers for people and also enable people to join the trades that haven’t had access before.”
The construction industry is one of the largest sectors in the global economy, with about $10 trillion spent each year. That spending accounts for 13% of the world’s GDP, even though the sector’s annual productivity growth has only increased 1% over the past 20 years. According to McKinsey & Co., $1.6 trillion of additional value could be created through higher productivity, and autonomy would help the industry achieve that.
Today, we’re excited to announce another first for Nuro. For the past few months, R2 has been testing on city streets fully autonomously in three different states. No drivers. No occupants. No chase cars.
Arizona has what researchers call “the climate of tomorrow, today.” Scientists are using a 30-ton robotic field scanner in the state to study plant genetics and hopefully develop stress-resilient crops.
Nearly every company across every industry is looking for new ways to minimize human contact, cut costs and address the labor crunch in repetitive and dangerous jobs. WSJ explores why many are looking to robots as the solution for all three.