Tech 101: Autonomous machines | Construction dive


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Like many emerging technologies in construction, the use of autonomous vehicles on construction sites today is even more of a rarity than a norm. But technology is making inroads, both from original equipment manufacturers and the increasing use of modernized technology to make conventional vehicles drive themselves.

Entrepreneurs are taking note of this emerging technology in the construction space. “We believe that technology will fuel our innovation as a business,” Tom Emison, vice president of strategy and innovation at Kraus-Anderson, a Minneapolis-based construction management company, told Construction Dive. “As a result, we need to be aware of and embrace emerging technologies as they become commercially viable for us.”

What you should know

“Construction executives need to know that this emerging technology will make their operations safer, stay on schedule and maintain efficiency, and in most cases save costs,” said Ali Asmari, Head of AI and Machine Learning at New York-based Hauppauge ULC Robotics, which recently launched its Robotic system for road works and excavation. “It is important to note that the use of autonomous vehicles will not kill jobs, but rather teach traditional workers a new skill that will benefit them as innovation continues to grow.”

The incumbent operators of construction machinery such as Caterpillar, Komatsu, Volvo, Hitachi and Liebherr are already building machines that come out of the factory with built-in automation. Caterpillar, for example, claims to have the largest fleet of autonomous transport trucks in the world, which have already hauled 2 billion tonnes of mining materials for its customers in this industry.

But startups, including SafeAI and Built Robotics, have also been busy developing technologies that can convert existing vehicles into autonomous machines. The benefits there, says Bibhrajit Halder, CEO of SafeAI, come down to the cost.

“Your typical construction company already has hundreds and hundreds of existing equipment,” said Halder. “If they want to use them independently, modernizing these existing assets makes perfect sense. “

Beyond the machines themselves, other technologies are evolving in parallel with stand-alone equipment. Automatic learning and guidance, telematics and remote control are among the technologies that are becoming available to the construction industry from an application perspective, and will play a key role in autonomous vehicles on construction sites. .

Construction applications

Autonomous technology for construction promises safer working conditions, better cost control through optimized fuel consumption and operations, and even the development of new job categories when operators leave the cab to operate equipment. remotely or engage in analysis and refinement of machine data instead of conventional movement of dirt and materials and worksite.

“It’s wider than simple autonomous vehicles,” said lawyer Carol Sigmund, a partner in the construction practice group of the law firm Greenspoon Marder. “Tits reflection should also focus on remote operation and observation. Dump truck fleets moving from jobsite to depot can be self-sufficient, but someone will monitor them on a computer. People will need to install, operate, debug, and maintain these systems. “

Basic autonomy is already part of some existing construction equipment. Blade control on bulldozers using machine learning to constantly optimize the angle of attack, backhoes with return-to-excavation automation and even operator comfort control (available for over a decade ) are examples of technologies that take on repetitive tasks or otherwise increase operator efficiency, even if the machine does not have full control.

Then there are the efficiency benefits. Today’s data sets already include idle time, fuel consumption, and maintenance tracking, and are likely to evolve into greater automation as users deepen the analytical opportunities available to them. from machine data and in turn use that data for better machine learning.

Another benefit relates to work, a problem that is only getting worse as today’s workers age.

“It’s getting harder and harder to find the guy who has 30 years of experience as a heavy equipment operator,” said Jason Anetsberger, senior product manager for Komatsu America Corp of Rolling Meadows, in Illinois. more tech savvy. We try to give the operator the means to [them] and the machine is much more efficient and productive in the end. “


Despite these advantages, the adoption of stand-alone technologies for construction has been relatively slow compared to industries such as mining and agriculture. One reason is that construction sites vastly lack the more focused range of predictable and repetitive tasks on defined topographies that benefit agriculture and mining. Rapidly changing jobsite conditions can hamper large-scale, operatorless deployment of heavy equipment.

Tom Webb, vice president of strategic initiatives at Sugar Land, Texas, heavy civil construction management software company HCSS, said construction site variables are simply different from other use cases.

The nature of the build means that what works in a lab environment is just not enough, ”said Webb. “How many entrepreneurs put a shovel in the ground and found something they weren’t expecting? already in the ground can have major implications for a construction project, and machines may not know how to stop if they hit something.

Cost has also been an issue, especially given the staggered upgrade schedules of many companies’ equipment fleets. But now, as renovations to existing vehicles become more common, that barrier may be lowering.

“The construction industry has told us that they want to use autonomy, that they want to connect everything, but so far it has not been at a price and maturity level that they can adopt, ”said Halder of SafeAI. “Now the price and maturity have improved to the point where you’ll see adoption pick up. “

Notable projects

  • A push to improve operator safety across the industry has led to the use of driverless emergency trucks by on-road construction crews. Designed to act as a shock cushion between distracted drivers and an active work area, rescue trucks until recently required a live operator.
  • Driverless technology developed by Micro Systems, based in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, was used in a pilot program with Royal Truck & Equipment, based in Coopersburg, Pa. “Whenever a driver can be removed from vehicles in an unsafe situation and there is no one inside to sustain damage or injury, that is the measure of success,” said Rob Roy , president of Royal Truck & Equipment.
  • The North Dakota Department of Transportation Autonomous Impact Protection Vehicle has also been used to protect construction crews from other drivers on the road who might not be paying attention to the construction site or may have lost control of their vehicle. . The technology, developed by Kratos Defense in partnership with Royal Truck & Equipment, has converted a current NDDOT truck into an autonomous vehicle. The autonomous vehicle is monitored and controlled by a human-controlled lead vehicle and will automatically track construction equipment without endangering a driver.
  • Converting existing vehicles is the same approach SafeAI took in a recent pilot project with Japanese entrepreneur Obayashi at a quarry site near Cupertino, California. The company equipped a Caterpillar 725 articulated hauler, demonstrating a vital function on the site: load-haul-dump cycles. Sensors and adapters both in the cab of the truck and on its external bumpers help the dump truck “see” and follow commands.
  • Researchers at Baidu Research Robotics and the University of Maryland recently unveiled an Autonomous Excavator System (AES) that can perform material loading tasks almost comparable to that of an experienced human operator while operating continuously for longer. 24 hours.

For further reading

Autonomous construction machines are here

Volvo CE to open new test and demonstration area dedicated to sustainable energy, connectivity and autonomous solutions

Built Robotics’ massive construction excavator drives itself

How autonomous robots are changing construction

Caterpillar and autonomous mining

Construction Vehicles and Autonomous Vehicles – Considerations for Increased Adoption

Autonomous construction

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