James Worthington considers the legal issues surrounding the use of robotics on the construction site

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One of the recent technological advances that is likely to have a significant effect on the construction industry is the growing use of automation and robotics. 

This is something that has already revolutionised manufacturing. Companies can now produce new cars, smart phones and computers with a speed and efficiency that is simply not possible with humans alone. The impact of automation on the construction industry has not yet been as great, but this could be starting to change. 

Robotics use in construction

Robotics promises a chance to transform the efficiency and quality of developments:

  • Autonomous vehicles There is already significant focus on self-driving freight and personnel transport, but potential advantages go further. Automated bulldozers, cranes and other vehicles could facilitate consistent and continually productive work.
  • Robots on site powered by AI and machine learning This could revolutionise a number of conventional construction methods. For example, there are already companies producing robotic bricklayers. In future such robots could build structures in extreme or inhospitable environments and lower human involvement in dangerous tasks.
  • Prefabrication using robots This could allow buildings to be manufactured in kit-form in factory conditions before being installed on site.

Legal issues in robotics use

As is so often the case, the introduction of new technology will bring new issues that must be addressed:

  • A fundamental concern for construction participants is an appropriate allocation of risk. Issues may arise from subcontracting to robotics providers regarding determining responsibility for errors and sub-standard work. This is particularly likely as the development of self-learning robotics could increasingly detach the performance of machines from the human input dictating their behaviour. The robotics providers may (particularly in the early takeup of such technology) be small companies with limited financial strength, which may be unwilling to accept the standard risk profile of construction companies. 
  • Will robotics providers be able to obtain insurance with the same coverage as traditional contractors? This is particularly relevant for new technology and its potential to cause damage. What exclusions could apply to such insurance? For example, would it cover damage caused by cyber risk?
  • A potential over-reliance on a small number of providers. This could cause problems if the provider became insolvent during a project, raising issues such as who controls the robot, the difficulty of migrating to a new supplier, what happens to the machine learning of a robot trained for that site? 
  • The importance of support by the providers. What are their obligations to maintain the robot? Is there an obligation to keep its software up to date on longer projects to meet evolving IT standards?
  • What is the extent of the provider’s obligation to provide services to help train the robot? Does the provider simply provide the robot and the relevant code, or is the provider obliged to configure, implement and train the robot to perform the required functions?
  • Can specific performance indicators be applied, such as bricks laid per hour, or – in terms of service levels for support – response and resolution times for breakdowns in the robot?
  • Who benefits from a robot’s learning on a specific project? This is a very open question. The robot providers supply the robot and underlying software, but the clients provide the data and time on site that allows it to learn. The increased efficiency from such learning could have a significant value in future projects.
  • Are new health and safety policies required to ensure a safe interaction between humans and machines?
  • Robots typically respond to a range of stimuli, including visual and audio cues. This involves the use of microphones and cameras. As with the public use of any such technology, measures must be taken to ensure any personal data inadvertently (or intentionally) collected is handled in accordance with relevant data protection laws.
  • Robots may be programmed with or collect confidential information such as plans and designs for on-going projects. Due consideration should be given to the legal steps taken in order to ensure confidentiality of such information and the licences required to use such information.

The development of robotics conjures up ideas of fully automated building sites. However, it is much more likely that robots will always work alongside humans on site. They could perhaps take on the more dangerous tasks and those requiring greater speed or strength, allowing humans to concentrate on supervision and the more innovative jobs on site.

This future may bring new risk profiles in construction contracts and additional contractual provisions to deal with matters such as software, support and cyber risk. However, the real question is how this technology will develop and its impact on site.