Science-fiction writers have spun countless tales of malevolent, rampaging robots laying waste to helpless cities as panicked citizens flee in horror.

Now, life is imitating this pulpy art—at least to some extent—with the emergence of a more benign but immensely versatile type of remote-controlled robot designed specifically for demolition work.

Fitted with hydraulic breakers and other attachments, track-based, electrically powered demolition robots can venture into interiors, hazardous environments and confined spaces to dismantle floors, ceilings and wall slabs, keeping workers out of the way of falling concrete and other dangers.

Demolition robots, which are free from the emissions issues associated with diesel and propane motors, can be used safely in buildings that are still occupied and operational.

Today’s demolition robots do not trace their technological origins to dank laboratories or outer space; in fact, their roots go back to Scandinavia. Mike Martin, director of North American sales for Swedish manufacturer Brokk, which pioneered demolition robots in the early 1980s, says worker safety has been the decisive factor in product development.

“Swedish workers were required by law to limit their time on jackhammers to prevent nerve damage and other vibration-related injuries,” Martin explains. “Robots helped contractors across Europe address that issue—along with the worksite hazards—and increase their productivity.”

While similar concerns have helped cultivate increased interest in demolition robots on this side of the Atlantic, Stanley LaBounty’s product line manager, Rob Murray, says project economics also have come into play in recent years.

Working From Outside In

“As the economy has tightened, owners have recognized the value of selective demolition—preserving the shell and gutting the interior,” says Murray, whose company entered the North American robo-demo market last year through a partnership with Finnish manufacturer Finmac. “This is particularly important in urban environments where space for new buildings [and historic structures] is at a premium.”

While the robots come in a range of sizes, the newest entries to the North American market trend toward smaller, power-packed models.

The 3,417-lb Stanley LaBounty F16, which was officially introduced at the 2011 World of Concrete, held on January 18-21 in Las Vegas, features both a low center of gravity and a higher lifting capacity at the end of its 16.4-ft, fully rotatable telescoping arm.

“That means you can use larger, more productive attachments, allowing users to work faster,” says Murray, speaking of the F16. That robot costs $135,000 and includes a 500-ft-lb breaker and bucket.

Similarly, Brokk’s newest model—the 160—offers a larger robot’s power on a more compact track. The 3,527-lb robot’s 18.5-kW motor produces 410 joules of energy at the breaker’s tip. Priced in the $130,000 to $140,000 range, fully equipped with breaker and bucket, the 30.7-in.-wide 160 also strikes a profile that accommodates doorways, windows and other narrow openings.

‘Swiss Army Knife’ Configuration

Demolition robots are incorporating other features that make them multi-purpose worksite tools. Husqvarna’s DXR 140, which also debuted at this year’s World of Concrete, features built-in, individually controlled outriggers for stability on any surface, LED spotlights and Bluetooth control with complete status display. Users can tap into the $131,000 base robot’s hydraulic system to power hand tools for more precise cutting or chipping tasks.

Husqvarna product manager Johan Ekstrom says, “A major consideration factor for buyers [in the U.S.] is the robot’s hitting power.” Ekstrom says the DXR’s 14.75-hp or 20.12-hp motor options allow the operator to employ up to 100% of the breaker’s force.

Given the prices of demolition robots in the context of a depressed construction economy, some might question whether their return on investment can match more conventional alternatives such as skid steers, excavators and manually operated tools.

“The thing is, you can’t put an excavator in a basement,” asserts Martin. “You also have to look beyond the robot and consider other costs, such as prevailing wage, workmen’s compensation, maintenance and theft.”

That’s why the current prototypical customer shopping for a demolition robot tends to be a contractor with a more entrepreneurial bent.

One-Stop Shoppers

“Many concrete cutters are looking to robots as a way to add demolition services to their business,” Ekstrom says. “That [advantage] can be very appealing to customers who want to get everything from a single vendor.”

Although the market may seem somewhat crowded for such a seemingly niche product, Murray says the marketplace exposure can only help demolition robot manufacturers, especially contractors trying to squeeze every bit of productivity and profitability out of a business landscape that will likely remain lean for the foreseeable future.

“The more people see and hear about demolition robots, the more momentum we build,” he says. “It is a product that’s coming of age.”