The Trust Gap in Construction and Robotics

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Robison Wells

Construction is one of the largest industries in the world economy, making up 13% of the world’s GDP. Yet, construction is widely recognized as much slower than other sectors in adopting new technology. And while many new technologies appear in the industry, including virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and robotics, there has been a reluctance to use these tools.

“There is fear that automation will replace construction jobs,” says Burcin Becerik-Gerber, Dean of Civil and Environmental Engineering at USC. “I don’t think construction workers are going to be obsolete, but they have to quickly figure out how to work with the technology and how to upskill.”

Becerik-Gerber is leading a program looking at ways to rapidly integrate technology into construction more rapidly. Their primary focus is on building a relationship of trust between workers, employers, and technologists. Because of the high cost of entry into robotic construction, many companies are refusing to buy into the opportunities available. The group with USC is looking at how these companies can get a leg up on the technologies before investing the massive amounts of money necessary to get them running. This includes training programs using virtual and augmented reality.

“Trust in automation is one of the key principles. If you don’t trust your smart thermostat, for instance, you’re not going to use it,” Becerik-Gerber said.

The new training programs are called Virtual Learning Environments, or VLEs, which are not new to the industry but have hitherto been focused on safety training, not using new technologies. The new VLE modules are designed to create dynamic spaces for multiple interactions, similar to a real construction site. The programs even include elements such as dust and shadows to make the simulations more realistic.

Assistant Professor Yasemin Copur-Gencturk explained: “The learning environment we created not only provides an example of scalable training for workers, but also provides a prototype of an engaging learning environment in which workers are given the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them. Whereas a mistake made with an actual robot on a construction site may lead to injuries, workers can make the same mistakes in this learning environment and see the consequences of their mistakes without actually being hurt.”

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