Penn State Engineers Leading Way on Human-Robot Interaction on Construction Sites

May 18, 2021

Image: Adobe Stock, Blue Planet Studio

Back in 1989, ‘Back to the Future Part II’ envisioned a 2015 with flying cars, self-tying shoes and hoverboards. While we aren’t quite there yet, it would have been just as bold a prediction to imagine construction workers interacting with artificially intelligent robots on jobsites. Now, in 2021, a team of engineers at Penn State has been making strides in research on human-robot collaboration on construction sites. 

Robots historically excel at repetitive tasks in a controlled environment, which is far different from the rugged and changing environment on a construction site. As a largely unautomated industry, construction workers can benefit from robots that could perform strenuous and repetitive physical activities such as lifting heavy objects, delivering materials to the workers, monitoring the progress of construction projects, tying rebars, or laying bricks to build masonry walls. 

A team of engineers at Penn State has been making strides in research on human-robot collaboration on construction sites.

Houtan Jebelli, assistant professor of architectural engineering at Penn State, notes that there is a need for a change in designing collaborative construction robots toward ones that can monitor workers’ mental and physical stress and subsequently adjust their performance.

“One novel aspect of the project to me is that it is one of the very first studies that try to measure and quantify workers’ cognitive load continuously, in near-real-time based on their physiological responses," Jebelli said. “Simultaneously, these decoded signals will be transferred into the robot’s motion planner for change of action. Once we capture workers' cognitive load, we try to transfer this information into the robot so that the collaborative robot can monitor workers' cognitive load.”

Whenever the cognitive load is recognized to be higher than a specific threshold, the robot will reduce its pace to provide a safer environment for the workers. This response could help design a collaborative robotic system that understands the human partner’s mental state and hopefully improve workers’ safety and productivity in the long term. The team published their results in two papers in Automation in Construction.

HappyValley construction workers should not be concerned with robots taking their jobs but excited about the prospect of working alongside construction robots.

The researchers noted in their paper that, in shared physical spaces, human-robot collaboration can raise new safety concerns as workers' mental health can be adversely affected by poor communication between the two peers. Their study proposes a worker-centered collaborative framework that enables robots to capture workers' brainwaves from a wearable electroencephalograph, evaluate their task-related cognitive load, and adjust the robotic performance accordingly. The framework was examined by asking 14 subjects to execute a collaborative construction task with a terrestrial robot under various levels of cognitive loads. The results showed the robot could regulate its working pace with 81.91% accuracy.

“We developed a brain-computer interface system, which we can think of as a person trying to learn a new language that doesn’t know how to generate commands,” Jebelli added. “We try to connect different commands with some predefined patterns of their brainwaves.”

With more commands, the researchers can train and improve the performance of the system. These different commands include tasks such as controlling the robot, stopping the robot, or designing some predesigned work plan, such as delivering material from point A to point B by thinking about some specific tasks in the dictionary.

HappyValley construction workers should not be concerned with robots taking their jobs but excited about the prospect of working alongside construction robots.

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