Autonomy and robotics benefit construction workers

By Tom JacksonMay 08, 2022

Built Robotics makes aftermarket robotic upgrades (Photo: Built Robotics)

In today’s construction industry robotics and autonomous technology are emerging in everything from portable power tools to giant mining trucks.

While remote control is an established technology, the addition of artificial intelligence (AI), Lidar (light detection and radar), new software and massive increases in computing power promise big changes – as big, if not bigger, than the introduction of GPS machine control 20 years or so ago.

From what the equipment OEMs say, autonomous and semi-autonomous construction machines are going to radically change the industry by creating new levels of productivity, quality and safety – and usher in a new, digitally savvy generation of construction workers.

As with GPS machine control, what’s driving this revolution is economics. “You dig more, spend less,” says Erol Ahmed, director of communications for Built Robotics, which makes aftermarket robotic upgrades for excavators. Add in the safety benefits, the ability for one worker to do more high-value work, and operation in hazardous environments, and you’ve got a winning combination, he says.

What is autonomous construction?

Autonomy evolved from the technology developed for GPS machine control two decades ago, but it’s taking things further. With machine control, the operator still makes dozens of decisions every day. Autonomy is evolving to enable the machine to make more of these decisions.

“The next step is to develop advanced software with higher levels of perception and intelligence integrated into the product,” says Scott Crozier, general

Autonomy evolved out of the technology that established GPS machine control (Photo: Trimble)

manager at Trimble. “The way we get there is by continually advancing the levels of assistance.”

What’s required for ‘assistance’ depends on the machine and the job. A compactor performs a relatively simple operation, and a mining truck can follow a pre-programmed path from the loading area to the dump site easily. “But more complex machines and tasks will require significant levels of software to deliver the intelligence and the perception systems that make these useful,” Crozier says.

Finlay Wood, business area director for autonomous solutions at Trimble, adds that, “We’re taking on more of the things that operators have to think about and automating those, all the things that take an experienced operator years to get good at.

“Our goal is to make an inexperienced operator perform like a good operator by helping them make those decisions – on the machine but also at the site level.”

Benefits of an automated process

With machine control, you dig precisely to grade. With autonomous or semi-autonomous operation, you’ll not only dig to the grade detailed on the digital site plan, but dig with perfect efficiency – every bucketful, every time, every day; without fail, fatigue, interruptions, or flagging attention.

“A talented operator might be fast for a few hours,” says Crozier. “But if you’re doing it over the course of a longer period of time, you’re going to find the automated process will likely perform better.”

In construction, cycle times impact everything from productivity to fuel consumption and machine depreciation. An optimized, autonomous or semi-autonomous digging cycle will outperform manual control by instantly analyzing and then optimizing every variable from the geometry of the bucket penetrating the ground to the capacity of your hydraulic pump to where your engine is in the torque band.

With position sensors surrounding the machine with a digital safety grid, it can dig and dump at top speed 24/7 without any concern about accidentally hitting the truck or structures close by.

In fact, many of the operational challenges faced on construction sites today can be solved without complex and costly AI-based solutions. “Instead, our focus is placed on building products that solve real word problems in the simplest way practicable – whether that is by creating workflows enabled by cloud technologies or using LIDAR point clouds and digital cameras to differentiate between a building and a stockpile,” comments Trimble’s Wood.

Crozier adds that optimized performance will become even more important as more battery-powered machines come into play as the industry looks to lower its emissions and increase sustainability.

“You want to be as efficient as you can be with the use of that power,” he says. “We’re going to see intelligent automation come into play that enables maximum work output from a battery charge.”

How are robotics used in construction?

The ideal with robotics is to take a task that’s tedious, repetitive or has high health and safety risks, and add a level of automation that lets the robot take over the arduous and repetitive tasks, says Aidan Maguire, business unit manager for measuring and robotics at Hilti.

Hilti’s Jaibot takes on some of construction’s most tedious tasks and can compile as-built data while it works (Photo: Hilti)

Overhead drilling in concrete is one such task, but anything that puts the worker in an awkward position ergonomically or in a hard-to-reach area has the potential to be automated. Hilti’s semi-autonomous Jaibot is designed to do that and can be programmed to follow a digital plan detailing where the drilling or work needs to be done.

“We have automated the steps in the application where we can achieve the greatest productivity gains, such as location drilling and marking the anchor point,” says Maguire. “We’re also learning how to make construction projects more robot-friendly.”

Hilti is continuing to add more field intelligence to the Jaibot, enabling it to analyze situations and determine when a drilling point may run into interference or where drilling may not be possible such as the angled section of a metal deck or in the case of rebar hits. “At that point the operator can use their construction knowledge to say, ‘Yes, I’m happy with all these moves, go ahead and drill,’” says Maguire.

Mining is an early adopter of this technology. “The mining industry has used autonomous technology for more than 20 years, but we’ve gone as far as we can go with the first iteration of this technology,” confirms Bibhrajit Halder, founder of SafeAI.

He adds that this second generation is AI-powered, versatile and scalable, and will bring meaningful, widespread change to the mining industry.

In March this year, SafeAI announced it is working with Australian company Position Partners to retrofit a mixed fleet of 100 vehicles for MACA, a diversified mining and contracting group, to create one of the largest autonomous heavy equipment fleets in Australia. SafeAI has created a machine-agnostic package that can be added to any machine, from a skid steer to a mining truck.

“This technology is a game changer for our business, our customers and our industry,” says Shane Clark, MACA’s general manager of estimating and technical services. “SafeAI’s solution has profound implications for site safety, efficiency and cost-effectiveness.”

“The first Industrial Revolution was more than 100 years ago, and we are absolutely in the beginning of a new Industrial Revolution centered around robotics and artificial intelligence,” says Jeremy Searock, who co-founded Advanced Construction Robotics with Stephen Muck five years ago.

Their company’s first creation was TyBot, an automated rebar tying machine for large horizontal applications such as bridge decks and concrete flatwork. In development is another robot that will be able to tie rebar in horizontal applications and the IronBot, which will pick up long lengths of rebar and space them out on a grid.

How to fix construction’s skill shortage

“With labor in short supply, the only option is to make a single person more productive, and that’s what robots do,” says Searock. “By working with a robot, one person can do the work of an entire crew. The goal is not to reduce headcount, but to give each person on the job the opportunity to perform higher-value tasks,” he says.

Automation is going to change the construction world to be more closely aligned with the skillsets that young people have today, says Wood. “Your experienced operators are never going to go away. But robotics and autonomy are going to make the jobs more accessible to young people.”

There’s going to be a transition, says Crozier, but not fewer people. Instead of machine operators there might be grid operators managing multiple machines. Cybersecurity skills will become more important as will the ability to diagnose and work through digital issues. These workers will likely be paid

TyBot, an automated rebar tying machine (Photo: Advanced Construction Robotics)

more and highly recruited because they’re delivering more value than a single operator working with just one machine.

“Digital literacy has to come up,” says Hilti’s Maguire. “We’ll see it naturally with this new generation. But the new generation can’t throw away the knowledge and best practices of the past because those core skills are required to use any technology effectively. We have to figure out the best way for contractors to marry those two worlds together.”

There is no doubt that robotic equipment operators are one of the jobs of the future for construction and – even if it takes longer than initially thought – the influence of robotics and automation on construction will only continue to grow.

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