Busy Robot Helpers Buzz Through Energy Efficiency Challenges Like Self-Driving Buzzsaws

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EV batteries are smaller, lighter, more powerful, less expensive, and longer lasting than ever before. The world is their oyster, and that includes drones and other off-road equipment. That, apparently, gave the US Department of Energy the bright idea of holding a competition to see who could come up with the best robot that can fly, crawl, or skitter around buildings and perform energy efficiency retrofits. Electric robots that poke around buildings are not quite as sexy as a zero emission Maserati, but the decarbonization payoff is a planet-saver.

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The E-ROBOT Prize For Energy Efficiency

The E-ROBOT Prize is a $5 million competition that launched in November 2020 as part of the American Made Challenges program, which is supported by the American-Made Network, a public-private-academic partnership that leverages the brainpower of the Energy Department’s 17 national laboratories.

Think of E-ROBOT as a sort of Formula E, but for robots with green jobs instead of electric race cars, and you’re on the right track.

Building retrofits are the ripe, juicy, low-hanging fruit of decarbonization, and the nation’s 125 million existing residential buildings are ripe for plucking.

There being no such thing as a free lunch, retrofitting 125 million or so buildings is not as easy as it looks. According to the Energy Department, each year only about 1% of the floorspace in US buildings is retrofitted in any kind of significant way. High up-front costs and the disruption of building occupants and operations are the two main obstacles.

“Current retrofit techniques are often disruptive to homeowners or occupants and pose potential health and safety hazards to workers,” the Energy Department explains. “By pairing robotic experts with building scientists, the E-ROBOT Prize will help us discover holistic solutions that allow workers to safely reach more homes and businesses with minimal disruption, or even perform activities that were previously impossible, while helping create new jobs and generate energy savings opportunities.”

“For example, robots can safely enter small spaces and cavities, such as ductwork, to perform air-sealing or other efficiency activities,” they point out.

Aside from filling gaps in the labor pool, the aim is to improve quality and consistency in the retrofit industry, too.

Fast-Tracking Innovative Robot Helpers

The Energy Department is not waiting for the grass to grow under its feet. The idea behind the E-ROBOT Prize is to fast-track promising technology with seed money, technical support and other guidance.

The Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy has charge of the program, and by last August it already had a roster of 10 semi-finalist robotic gizmos to announce, each of which won $200,000 to help them advance to the next round.

To be clear, the winning technology does not necessarily have to be an un-tethered, battery-powered device. However, onboard batteries allow for much greater freedom of movement.

Here are the 10 semi-finalists. See if you can pick the three winning finalists from this group:

And The Robot Winners Are…

Trick question! If you guessed 4 winners — Roboattic, Thermodrone, Unified Robots, and the Mayfly and the Aardvark, run right out and buy yourself a cigar. Roboattic and Thermodrone combined their tech into one winning team.

The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy announced the 3 prizewinners on April 7, and if all goes according to plan, an electrified robot revolution will sweep across the nation.

“We’re in an all-out sprint to beat the climate crisis, and that race runs straight through our nation’s buildings,” said EERE’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Kelly Speakes-Backman explained. “Advanced building construction and renovation methods, like the ones our E-ROBOT winners have unveiled today, are the kinds of transformative innovations we need to accelerate the decarbonization of America’s 130 million buildings and meet President Biden’s goals of a net zero carbon economy by 2050.”

Credit for dreaming up the idea of the E-ROBOT competition goes to Ram Narayanamurthy, a Program Manager in EERE’s Building Technologies Office

“The types of innovations our E-ROBOT competition unleashed have the power to transform our buildings sector,” Narayanamurthy emphasized. “Advancements in building retrofits are necessary to achieve ambitious energy goals.”

The Best Robot Building Helpers Ever

As for what that transformation is going to look like, a glance at the 3 winning teams provides a clue.

RoboAttic came up with a robot that can clean attics and seal air systems in spaces that are inaccessible or difficult for humans to access.

Thermadrone sets the stage for the work by deploying its thermal drone imagers to diagnose problems and pinpoint opportunities. Once the scouting is done, the RoboAttic robot takes charge of the hands-on work. Then, Theradrone flies in again to eyeball the work for verification and quality assurance.

Unified Robots assembled a team of experts in retrofit robotics, energy auditing, architecture, and construction.

“This team’s user-friendly suite of tools includes: a project management, costing, and ROI software for integrated workflows, UAV and AI powered autonomous anomaly sensing and detection system, and a robotic retrofit tool that can implement minimally invasive envelope remediations such as caulking, aerosol sealing, and foam insulating across all types of existing buildings,” the Energy Department explains.

Crazy Name, Cool Robot

The Mayfly and the Aardvark would have gotten the prize for weirdest robot name, if there was one. There wasn’t, but its creator, Friendly Robots Company, did nail down the third of the 3 prize-winning slots.

The Mayfly and the Aardvark is actually a two-robot team. One robot is a “semi-autonomous flying quadcopter air duct inspection drone,” which is tasked with identifying the work to be done. That’s the mayfly end of things, for sure. A second robot, which resembles an aardvark somehow, comes in to get the job done.

“Rather than crawling through attics and climbing ladders, workers can deploy the drone, review the gathered information, and dispatch the remediation robot to fix the issues. This new approach prioritizes worker safety and efficiency on the job site,” EERE explains.

Let’s Hear It For The Robot Revolution

After the flying, crawling robot revolution hits the building retrofit area, there are plenty of other green jobs for robotic devices.

One next step would be swimming robots that can accomplish undersea tasks. Soft robots, robot swarms, and snake-like robotic devices are other areas in development.

Robots in manufacturing have been a thing for many years, and the mainstreaming of electric vehicles provides them with a massive green chore in the auto manufacturing area.

With that in mind, check out Maserati’s electrification plans. Last month, the ultra-luxury automaker (which is now owned by Stellantis) announced that it is “carving out the path that will make it the first luxury brand to launch a 100% electric sports car,” beginning with the new GranTurismo, and that futhermore Maserati “will set the benchmark in every market segment and will be the first luxury brand to complete its electric line-up by 2025.”

Look for that new zero emission GranTurismo to roll off the assembly line with “cutting-edge technical solutions derived from Formula E,” which is the global auto industry’s showcase for high performance electric vehicle technology.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Image: E-ROBOT prize for new building energy efficiency retrofit solutions, courtesy of American-Made Challenges.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3140 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey