TECHNOLOGY PUNDIT Robert X. Cringley once wrote that the top 1 percent of the country's brainpower drove the boom. Sometimes it just takes the determination of a single person to move an industry forward.

Behrokh Khoshnevis, a professor at the University of Southern California, has a vision for our industry that will stop the heart of even the most tech-savvy home builder: Khoshnevis plans to use a robot to build a single-story, 500-square-foot home in one day.

The professor hopes to meet his goal by the end of 2005. The first house will be just a shell, followed by a larger house a couple of years later that will include plumbing and electrical. The research was funded by $1 million in grants from the National Science Foundation, Office of Naval Research, and NASA.

Khoshnevis says the federal government is interested in the project for both military housing and space applications. He says the first homes built by robots will be used for emergency housing and for low-cost housing for inner cities and developing nations.

“For 20,000 years, we've been doing things the same way,” says Khoshnevis, who points out that industries like automotive and aerospace have used robots successfully for several years. “This will mushroom very quickly. ... I think over 20 years it will take over—all building will be done this way.”

At the heart of the robotic house is a process Khoshnevis developed called “contour crafting.” Concrete is mixed with water and admixture—chemicals used in concrete—to create a paste material that is smoothed out by two trowels. The trowels let the robot build fairly thick layers—1 to 2 inches high—without impacting the surface quality. The robot then builds walls from the foundation up.

Khoshnevis says reducing construction cycle time to a single day will dramatically reduce financing costs, which today takes up about 20 percent to 25 percent of the cost of a new home. He also says the average house creates 3 to 7 tons of material waste; that's another 30 percent of a new-home's costs, a cost that the robot's precision would nearly eliminate. Finally, roughly 45 percent to 55 percent of a new-home's costs are for labor, an expense Khoshnevis says the robot can reduce to about 5 percent. Overall, Khoshnevis says robots can build houses for about one-fourth to one-fifth the cost of a home today.

The only task the robot can't do: install doors and windows, a job Khoshnevis says takes just a few minutes by hand and is not worth automating.

Ultra Easy

Expanded wireless technology can free up builders from unwieldy infrastructure hassles.

Intel is one of the major cheerleaders for the digital home, and one technology the chip maker says will accelerate its vision is Ultra-Wideband (UWB).

UWB is wireless technology that will let users transmit high-bandwidth applications such as video over short distances without traditional wires and cables. The technology will make it possible for all the components in a home entertainment center to be set up and connected without a single wire.

“What you'll see in the years ahead is the rise of centralized media cabinets, which will give builders the flexibility to think less about how the wires will go through the wall and more about how people will move throughout the room,” says Bill Leszinske, Intel's director of digital home marketing and planning.

Leszinske says consumer electronics companies will experiment with UWB in 2005. The first UWB products will ship in 2006.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.