I have been fascinated by robots ever since hearing “danger Will Robinson” over and over on Lost in Space. What kid hasn’t at some point wished for a robot like Rosie on the Jetsons who would clean your room for you and produce food on demand?
Due to developments in robotics, robots are being used more frequently in our world, including the construction industry.
Take “SAM” for example. SAM is a Semi-Automated Mason being used by a Colorado masonry contractor. SAM puts mortar on bricks and places them in a wall. SAM can place around 300-400 bricks an hour, which is about 5 times more than a human.
There is still a human factor to SAM’s work. Workers still have to load bricks and mortar, and follow behind SAM to remove excess mortar. Most importantly, someone has to program SAM for the work on the project. Without the correct programming, then SAM doesn’t know what work to perform.
Robots in construction are not just be limited to masonry work. In the next few years you should expect to see robots that can handle more and more tasks on a construction project, especially tasks involving a repetitive process.
So what if something goes wrong?
In SAM”s case, what if the brick wall is improperly constructed? Would the fact that the work was performed by a robot matter?
From a big picture perspective, probably not. The owner would still hold the general contractor responsible under the owner/contractor agreement, and the general contractor would still hold the subcontractor responsible.
What may matter though is how you go about establishing that the work was negligently performed, including whether the problem was caused by a human error or a robot malfunction.
A negligence claim requires breach of a legal duty by failing to comply with a standard of care. In the case of defective work performed by a robot, how would you establish the standard of care and then demonstrate a breach?
This may require evidence addressing the training for individuals programming the robot, the maintenance of the robot, and protocols for updating its software or operating system.
And if the robot was properly programmed, then evidence will be required to show a malfunction of the robot, which may prove difficult months after a project is complete. Whether the negligently performed work involves human error or a malfunction of the robot, a robotics expert may be necessary to establish the standard of care.
If you are an owner or general contractor and a subcontractor plans to use a robot like SAM or maybe a driverless bobcat for excavation (yes – they exist) then, at a minimum, your contracts should:
- address protocols for how programming data will be preserved;
- require daily reports on the operation of the robot; and
- require reports on the maintenance of the robot throughout the course of the project.
As the use of robots increases in the construction industry, there will be new questions and new issues to address. Will negligent work by a robot be covered by a commercial general liability policy? What happens if someone hacks into the robot and intentionally harms the work?
Perhaps we’ll try to tackle those questions sometime in the future. For now, even though it sounds like something that belongs in a science fiction movie, SAM may be coming a project near you.