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UA professors win prize for robotic technology that addresses climate change, labor shortage

Published: Nov. 1, 2021 at 5:18 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Two University of Arizona professors just won $200,000 for an invention to help cut down on carbon emissions.

Jonathan Bean, assistant professor of architecture, and Wolfgang Fink, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, worked together to create a robot that can address the climate crisis by helping to improve the energy performance of existing buildings.

“It’s tough to add insulation to many existing buildings. Increasingly, performance without compromising health and durability is a challenge,” said Bean.

Bean said existing buildings account for about 50% of carbon emissions globally.

And while Bean said building codes can help eliminate emissions in new buildings, he and Wolfgang wanted to address existing buildings.

“If you’ve tried to hire a contractor lately, you know they are pretty busy. Unfortunately, the skill that goes into installing insulation is a very high-skilled job but it is not paid very well. Even at those very low labor rates, it is difficult to justify adding insulation to existing buildings,” Bean said.

“Retrofitting the outside of a building is usually very labor-intensive. You have to build a scaffold, lots of people have to be on a scaffold, it’s highly manual. So the idea is to replace that with a robotic approach,” Wolfgang said.

To address the issue, Bean and Wolfgang designed the wall Exterior Insulation and Finish System, or wall-EIFS.

The robot can autonomously scan and analyze existing conditions of a building while recording texture and material properties. It also maps and stores the scanned information. Then, a 3D-sprayable exterior insulation and finish system is attached to the robot, which can be placed on something like a scissor lift. From there, wall-EIFS can spray the insulation while avoiding obstacles, like decorative bricks or balconies for example, and adjust to anomalies.

These researchers said an integrative tooling head allows the material to be shaped to replicate existing surface textures. Finished coats are then spray applied making it possible to preserve the look of historic buildings, or transform dated buildings.

“We like this idea of taking the existing labor force and helping more people actually get higher-value work and also expanding the number of buildings we can retrofit and add insulation too,” Bean said.

Wolfgang and Bean are proud of having taken an idea and turned into into a complete package for the competition.

“All the way from the concept, to technology, to the societal impact, to a potential business strategy to transfer the whole thing into the market,” Wolfgang said.

Their hard work paid off. Wall-EIFS is one of 10 finalist prize winners of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Retrofit Opportunities for Building Optimization Technologies Prize. The E-ROBOT competition is one in a series of American-Made Challenges sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Not only did Bean and Wolfgang walk away with $200,000, but they also have interest from companies who are considering adapting the technology to fit their needs.

“This is like the biggest thing I’ve ever won, so that is exciting,” Bean said. “The real excitement I feel about this is its potential. It is something that is definitely needed from an environmental, social, and economic perspective. If we can create more small businesses through this kind of innovation through the climate crisis.”

The researchers donated their winnings to the University of Arizona in the name of research.

Wolfgang said the sensory technology used in this award-winning robot is similar to the technology his lab has used in vision implants for the blind.

Wolfgang said his lab played a major role in the FDA-approved retinal implants. They allow a blind person to obtain some basic vision. He said the person would wear glasses that have a small mounted camera on top that wires images to an external processing unit that reduces the resolution and does some extra image processing then sends the images inside the eye to a chip which then, electrically stimulates the retina to create some basic vision.

The same image processing is being applied in this insulation project, as the robot searches for leaks and other building defects.

“The techniques are very similar, yet the applications couldn’t be any more diverse,” Wolfgang said.

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