Yong Cho is helping the construction industry to work smarter, not harder — and through his research, tomorrow's job sites will be much safer and more efficient, too.
Cho, an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Durham School of Architectural Engineering and Construction, is developing a method to build real-time virtual 3D models of work sites. These laser-guided, computer-generated environments will help automated construction equipment perform complicated tasks.
"It sounds a little bit like a movie, only this technology will definitely have real-world applications," Cho said. "We're creating virtual three-dimensional worlds for future construction sites, which will most likely be populated with a lot more machines."
That's because the U.S. construction industry faces a continual shortage of skilled construction craft workers — so it will need to automate to help bridge its labor gap. To carry out intricate tasks in an ever-changing job site, construction robots will require constantly updated and precise data about their surroundings.
That's where Cho's system comes in. He recently received a $400,000, five-year Faculty Early Career Development Program CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation to move forward with the research.
The CAREER Award is the NSF's most prestigious award for outstanding pre-tenure faculty and supports their development as researchers and teacher-scholars.
"I'm very honored to receive this award," Cho said. "It's very satisfying to be recognized, and it shows that our work is relevant and has a lot of potential."
When remote-controlled robots handle construction materials, they need rapid visualization in their workspaces, not to mention accurate position data, he said. Extremely accurate position data, in fact, so any physical contact the robots make with a target object is on line, and therefore safe and secure.
Such a precision-based system will help the construction industry be more environment-friendly, too, by reducing the amount of construction waste.
Cho and his Durham School team's system features a lightweight hybrid 3D laser scanner, a laser rangefinder and other optical sensors that can be mounted on a construction robot, such as one that drives bolts into girders. Their system will automatically recognize many objects typically found on a construction job site and will use new algorithms to lock in on other various shapes of construction materials and components.
Then Cho plans to test the system using real-world robotic test beds, including a multi-joint arm robot in his UNL lab as well as a bolting robot and an automated crane at Korea University in Seoul, South Korea.
The 3D modeling system is being developed with humans in mind. "The goal is not to replace people with construction robots," he said. "We want to provide precise, effective and safe ways to help humans perform jobs that can often be very dangerous."