NREL: Ushering in the Future of Building Retrofits

Envision builders using a robotic drone that can seal building leaks; construction workers controlling a multilegged robot that can insulate confined spaces; an autonomous drone that teams with a remediation robot to map and identify deficiencies, then cleans and repairs to prioritize worker safety and efficiency on the job site.

The American-Made E-ROBOT Prize Phase 1 winners are transforming existing U.S. homes and buildings with a sweeping portfolio of advanced robotics innovations.

There are more than 125 million homes and buildings in the United States, accounting for a staggering 35% of the country’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. By pairing robotic experts with building scientists, the E-ROBOT Prize is uncovering holistic solutions to achieve easier and safer building envelope retrofits.

The 10 teams moving on to the final phase of the contest will each take home $200,000 in cash prizes, along with a chance to win part of the $2 million Phase 2 prize pool. The E-ROBOT Prize Phase 1 winners stood out from the competition by creating high-impact, holistic solutions that address on-site benefits for worker health and safety and by designing for technical and commercial viability. Innovations were submitted by dozens of interdisciplinary teams from across the country, representing 18 states.

“U.S. homes and buildings are responsible for more carbon emissions than any other sector, yet only 2% are undergoing deep retrofits each year,” said Sarah Truitt, project manager in the NREL Building Technologies and Science Center. “The E-ROBOT competitors and their American Made Network industry partners are fast-tracking the development of minimally invasive, low-cost retrofit tools that will benefit workers and create new business opportunities for American companies. In Phase 2, the 10 finalists will articulate their commercialization pathways and showcase how their products work through a live demonstration in early 2022.”

The E-ROBOT Prize is focused on developing advanced robotics for building envelope retrofits in alignment with the Advanced Building Construction (ABC) Initiative. Innovations in robotic technologies will complement the existing workforce, allowing workers to reach places or perform activities that were previously impossible. For example, robots can safely enter small spaces and cavities, such as ductwork, to perform air-sealing or other efficiency activities. Advancing retrofit capabilities can also create new employment and business opportunities for Americans in construction, skilled trades, and engineering professions.

Clean energy goals cannot be obtained without addressing building technology. Visit the U.S. Department of Energy Building Technologies Office website for more on energy-efficient building initiatives.

Following is a full list of E-ROBOT Prize Phase 1 Winners and videos of their innovations in action.

E-ROBOT Prize Finalists
Apellix Techstyle Materials
Drone for Applying Multifunctional Control Layers
Jacksonville, Florida

The Apellix aerial drone measures, maps, and scans the exterior side of a building envelope and then applies and inspects spray material layers. The drone flies autonomously with an umbilical to power its flight and supply it with spray coating materials. The Apellix drone can work continuously and complete the installation and inspection of a control layer over an entire building envelope in a single flight—reducing the time to complete a re-siding project from 1–2 weeks to a day or two, and lowering the total cost of a project by 50%.

F.G.S.
Revolutionizing Robotic Retrofits
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

Team F.G.S. is uniting the three key stakeholders in the robotic envelope retrofit process—architects, general contractors, and robotics start-ups—to create a holistic ecosystem that addresses sensing, mapping, and retrofits. This team’s user-friendly modeling software and robotic retrofit tool can implement minimally invasive envelope remediations such as caulking, aerosol sealing, and foam insulating across all types of existing buildings.

Friendly Robots Company
The Mayfly and the Aardvark
Berkeley, California

The Mayfly and the Aardvark is a combination of an autonomous air-duct inspection drone that maps and identifies deficiencies with a remediation robot that cleans and repairs. 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.

FunForm
Robotic Assisted Exterior Insulated Finish Systems
Westport, Connecticut

The FunForm team is automating design, fabrication, and installation of exterior insulation and finish systems (EIFS) through robot technology to increase worker safety and efficiency, while cutting installation costs in half. This solution addresses the most labor-intensive step in EIFS by using mechanically fastened large-format expanded polystyrene (EPS) panels, adapting mapping and modeling tools to optimize material layout and implementing robotic assistance in fitting, scribing, and installing the panels.

New York University
EASEEbot
New York, New York

EASEEbot is a noninvasive solution to locate and document moisture intrusion, thermal bridges, and air leaks. The AI-powered and robot-assisted system scales and flies through buildings to autogenerate 3D models using advanced reconstruction techniques. The system identifies and quantifies common envelope defects and applies long-wave radar and machine learning to detect hidden deep moisture penetration and other major envelope defects.

Northeastern University
Precise Air-Sealing Robot for Inaccessible Spaces (PARIS)
Boston, Massachusetts

To address the challenges in attic crawlspace air-sealing, the Precise Air-sealing Robot for Inaccessible Spaces (PARIS) can easily traverse joist beams and uneven surfaces, create a 3D feature map via sensor-fusion, and perform targeted air-sealing. This robotic technology will help home energy contractors accomplish challenging retrofit tasks involving air-sealing in attic crawl spaces, while keeping human workers outside of the cramped and hazardous conditions.

Roboattic
Robotic System for Air-Sealing and Insulating Attics
Berkeley, California

The Roboattic team has designed a multilegged robotic system to air-seal and insulate inaccessible attics and confined spaces in multifamily buildings. The system is able to navigate common obstructions encountered in confined spaces while crawling through attic spaces to dispense spray foam into large and small gaps in the ceiling surface. In uninsulated and under-insulated spaces, the system can apply additional insulation in a safe and cost-effective way.

R-STRIPE
The R-STRIPE Deep Energy Retrofit System
Chester, Connecticut

The R-STRIPE system involves a robot that 3D scans the building to create a work plan, strips old cladding, and then applies a custom, patented air and water barrier insulating panel system. The combination of robotic technologies and proven building materials provide building owners energy savings and a return on retrofit investments by making it faster, easier, and less invasive for older buildings to hit modern energy standards.

Thermadrone
Drone Thermography for Building Envelope Retrofit
Berkeley, California

The Thermadrone project takes drone-captured images of building envelopes and applies advanced modeling techniques to fast-track diagnostics and verify the success of retrofits. The team applies deep learning and AI-based techniques to automatically identify locations with thermal anomalies (indicating air or water leakage). Traditional thermographic imaging requires full building pressurization, two entire building scans, and review and interpretation of the images.

wall-EIFS
wall-EIFS
Tucson, Arizona

Wall-EIFS is an autonomous robot that scans and analyzes building envelopes—avoiding obstacles and adjusting to anomalies—and then applies 3D-sprayable exterior insulation finishing systems (EIFS). The wall-EIFS system records building texture and material properties, which means it can replicate and preserve the appearance of historic buildings in addition to transforming dated buildings. Adding exterior insulation to existing wood frame and solid masonry buildings is particularly important, as these building types are notoriously difficult to insulate.

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