In a remarkable development that could revolutionize the field of construction, Assistant Professor Zhengbo Zou has been awarded a million-dollar Alliance grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NERSC). The funding will be instrumental in advancing the technological capabilities of robots and exploring innovative approaches to human-robot collaboration in construction.
Alliance grants encourage university researchers to collaborate with partner organizations, which can be from the private, public or not-for-profit sectors. These grants support research projects led by strong, complementary, collaborative teams that will generate new knowledge and accelerate the application of research results to create benefits for Canada.
Dr. Zou has been dedicated to advancing the capabilities of robotic systems to work alongside humans. These robotic systems are designed to assist human workers in construction projects, enabling them to accomplish tasks more effectively with reduced risk.
One focus in this area is detecting leaks in HVAC systems. The current manual inspection process is both time-consuming and inefficient. On the other hand, automatic sensors are too expensive to install and maintain and, in some cases, require major renovations to existing buildings.
To overcome these challenges, Dr. Zou devised a simpler solution that utilizes robotics technology in the form of unmanned ground vehicles (UGV). Nicknamed the TEA-BOT (Thermography-Enabled Autonomous Robot), the UGV can navigate unknown ceiling environments to build a 3D map and automatically identify leaks in HVAC systems. It will then take note of the leak locations using the 3D map and provide a comprehensive report.
In collaboration with his interdisciplinary research team, his recent work focuses on advancing miniature robots by adding serial and parallel robots to the ground-based and aerial robots for further reaching and higher flexibility of sensor/actuator movements.
Dr. Zou collaborates with Dr. Qian Chen, Dr. Kefei Wen, Dr. Omar Swei, and Dr. Hee Yeon Im, each bringing their expertise, ranging from civil engineering and mechanical engineering to psychology, to revolutionize construction practices. By integrating advanced intelligence, adaptability and developing predictive maintenance and life cycle analysis into miniature robots, the team aims to enhance efficiency, safety, and sustainability in the industry and reduce greenhouse emission.
Dr. Zou’s project receives strong support from municipality partners (City of Vancouver, Richmond, and Surrey), including facility managers, sustainability directors, and building engineers. These partners bring valuable experience in managing public buildings, aiding in testbed selection, data retrieval, and training. The project also received generous support from the private sector. Collaboration with RDH Building Science and SHAPE Management provides expertise in building science and defect identification, while UBC Building Operations assists with project coordination, logistics, and feedback for asset management tools.