Today, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) announced three winners of its American-Made E-ROBOT Prize, a competition that challenged teams of entrepreneurs to design and build robotic-driven approaches to retrofit buildings more safely and quickly with higher energy-performing walls and other building envelope solutions. Each winner will receive equal shares of the $2 million prize amount in cash prizes for their robotic solutions, which promise to accelerate the pace of building retrofits across the country.  

“We’re in an all-out sprint to beat the climate crisis, and that race runs straight through our nation’s buildings,” said EERE’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Kelly Speakes-Backman. “Advanced building construction and renovation methods, like the ones our E-ROBOT winners have unveiled today, are the kinds of transformative innovations we need to accelerate the decarbonization of America’s 130 million buildings and meet President Biden’s goals of a net zero carbon economy by 2050.” Last month, DOE provided $32 million to demonstrate several other advanced building renovation techniques across the country that hold similar potentials to improve building energy performance more quickly, efficiently, and affordably. 

Innovations in robotic technologies will also strengthen the American workforce, allowing on-site crews to safely 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. 

“Advanced building construction and renovation methods are exactly the kinds of transformative innovations we need to accelerate building improvements,” said Dr. Carolyn Snyder, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Energy Efficiency. “These will not only help us upgrade buildings more quickly, efficiently, and affordably, but they’re going to strengthen the American workforce.” 

“The types of innovations our E-ROBOT competition unleashed have the power to transform our buildings sector,” said Ram Narayanamurthy, a Program Manager in the Building Technologies Office where the E-ROBOT’s concept was born. “Advancements in building retrofits are necessary to achieve ambitious energy goals, considering that only about 1% of building floorspace in the U.S. is retrofitted in deep, meaningful ways every year due to the high cost and invasive nature of today’s construction and renovation methods. Prototypes developed through the E-ROBOT Prize showcase the promise of advanced robotics to make envelope retrofits more convenient for more people.”  

The winners are: 

RoboAttic & Thermadrone (combined team) - Berkeley, California 

RoboAttic and Thermadrone 

The RoboAttic team has developed a robotic attic vacuum cleaning and air sealing system for inaccessible attics and confined spaces. First, Thermadrone software uses thermal drone camera images to diagnose and identify attic retrofit opportunities. Then, RoboAttic robots vacuum clean and air seal attics quickly, cost-effectively, and safely; this allows for retrofitting inaccessible attics that would not have been air sealed otherwise. Finally, Thermadrone software allows for measurement and verification after retrofit completion, de-risking projects by providing quality assurance. 

Unified Retrofits - Bethlehem, Pennsylvania  

Unified Retrofits - Holistic Robotic Retrofits 

Unified Retrofits brings together leaders in the retrofit robotics, energy auditing, architecture, and construction fields to address the issues of sensing, mapping, and minimally invasive building envelope retrofits. This team’s user-friendly suite of tools includes: a project management, costing, and ROI software for integrated workflows, UAV and AI powered autonomous anomaly sensing and detection system, and a robotic retrofit tool that can implement minimally invasive envelope remediations such as caulking, aerosol sealing, and foam insulating across all types of existing buildings. 

Friendly Robots Company - Oakland, California 

The Mayfly and the Aardvark 

The Mayfly and the Aardvark is a combination of a semi-autonomous flying quadcopter air duct inspection drone that maps and identifies deficiencies, and 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.  

The two-phase, $5 million Prize, which launched in November 2020, paired robotic experts with building scientists to spur the development of minimally invasive, low-cost building envelope retrofit methods. During the competition’s final event yesterday, eight finalist teams impressed a panel of expert reviewers with live technology pitches and demonstrations of their advanced robotic prototypes. See all the competitors’ concepts and prototypes here. 

The E-ROBOT Prize is administered by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and funded by BTO.