Will job sites be fully autonomous in the future?
By Catrin JonesDecember 19, 2022
It’s hard to ignore the increasing attention autonomous construction equipment is receiving. There have been significant heavy equipment autonomy announcements in just the past year alone and the signs suggest that this is just the beginning.
All industries, including construction, have been the beneficiaries of U.S. defense research, said Bibhrajit Halder, founder and CEO of SafeAI. This included the DARPA (or Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Grand Challenge in the early 2000s, designed to accelerate autonomous vehicle technologies.
“That was a trigger point,” said Halder, whose company concentrates on bringing autonomous solutions to construction and mining. “It was a massive success that really sparked autonomy in this country.”
In 2014, the Society of Automotive Engineers established six levels of autonomy, going from Level 0, indicating vehicles with completely manual controls, to Level 5, in which there is zero human interaction in operating a vehicle.
“No one has a true Level 5 system yet,” said William Nassauer, manager of product strategy for Komatsu America’s autonomous systems and mining technology solutions. That assessment, of course, includes the automotive sector, which, although it is leading the autonomous journey, has had significant bumps along the way.
As it has with cars, construction equipment will transition from assist features to task automation to task autonomy. The now-commonplace operator assists, such as blade and bucket controls, require sensor basics that are steps along the automation journey.
But equipment automation should be considered in the context of total job site autonomy, with several autonomous machines working in concert, said Fred Rio, product manager for Construction Digital and Technology at Caterpillar.
“On a job site,” Rio said, “all machines have a shared mission, and no one machine can accomplish it without the other machines. The true quantum step in value will be when you can get them to all work together.”
Retrofitting existing machines
Several companies – including ASI, Built Robotics, SafeAI, and Teleo - are building retrofit kits that take the operator out of the cab.
ASI defines three different types of operator-out-of-the-cab controls: remote control, where the operator is in line-of-sight of the machine he or she is controling; teleoperation, or non-line-of-sight operation that’s still one operator on one machine; and autonomy, in which an operator can remotely oversee the operation of an entire fleet of machines. “We look at it as finding the best solution for the situation, but our experience and focus is really on autonomy,” Nielsen said.
Teleo’s Supervised Autonomy retrofit is specifically designed to include operators, according to co-founder and CEO Vinay Shet. “We’re combining the best of both worlds – the experience and expertise that their operators have with the advancements in technology,” he said. “This is letting their operators do a lot more than previously.”
The company, which has partnered with Deere dealer RDO Equipment among others, is now beta testing its system on North American job sites.
How does it work?
Today, autonomous machines are propelled by several systems working together.
The SafeAI retrofit system, for example, uses off-the-shelf hardware (LiDAR, camera, drive-by-wire system, radar, computer, and vehicle-to-everything communication)
and combines them with its proprietary autonomous vehicle and site operations management software.
This gives the vehicle location, perception, and direction. Working from a cloud-based project model, a staff member generally orchestrates the operation, Halder said.
SafeAI said it’s bringing “Autonomy 2.0” to the heavy industry, using a process that doesn’t rely completely on GPS and network availability and offers mixed fleet capabilities.
“The change management is significant in adopting autonomous machines,” Caterpillar’s Rio said.
Because of their autonomous experience in mining, Caterpillar, Komatsu and ASI have developed a structured approach to onboarding the technology to their customers.
“Our customers are going to be changing mentalities,” Nassauer said. “They’ve got to maintain their site in a different way, use workers in different ways and transition operators into supervisory roles. There’s a lot of learning involved.”
Understanding a job site – including what each machine is doing each day - and how the inputs and outputs work is an important step in becoming autonomous, said Michael Gidaspow, Komatsu America’s vice president of products. “They’ll have to give the machines specific instructions on exactly where and when to go,” he said.
To be attractive, autonomy must also be ultimately easier to use, said Wood. “We don’t want them to go and hire a whole group of IT specialists; there’s no point in it being more complex.”
As part of the move towards autonomous, Built Robotics envisions a new job: Robotics Equipment Operator (REO). “50% of this effort is developing the robot and 50% is how you deploy and get people to manage it effectively,” Ahmed said. “REOs are the people on the front lines. They go through a 30-hour training to run and manage these machines.” The company has partnered with the International Union of Operating Engineers to offer this certification to its members.
In addition to autonomous machine research, some are investigating job-specific robotic units.
For example, ULC Technologies’ Robotic Roadworks and Excavation System (RRES) uses a robotic arm on a tracked undercarriage to do a multiplicity of tasks aimed at performing precision bores in complex underground utility repairs.
“It automates this operation, from above-ground scanning and identifying where the underground assets are to reinstating the road when the job is done,” said Ali Asmari, director of infrastructure automation and AI at ULC Technologies.
After scanning, the onboard software creates a 3D model of what’s underground that guides the rest of the operation. The sensor box is then swapped out for a variety of road cutting, air, vacuum, repair, and backfill tools.
Although the RRES was created for one utility customer, its applications are broad, Asmari said. ULC is actively pursuing new opportunities with other companies, including how each of the tools can be used separately.
Will we reach a point where humans are not needed?
Will construction ever see a “no-entry” site where no humans are on the job, or indeed, necessary?
Perhaps, said Halder, but it’s still years away.
But there will be a tipping point. For example, let’s say using autonomous machines gives a 20% improvement in productivity. “The moment one contractor completes a $100-million project for $80 million because of autonomy, it’s game over,” Halder said. “Everybody has to do it because you can’t compete anymore.”
“The industry is absolutely massive, the pain points are huge, and it’s early days for autonomy,” Teleo’s Shet said. “To be honest, there are not enough companies doing what we’re doing.”
“There’s a huge appetite and interest in autonomy,” Ahmed agreed. “Maybe construction needs to develop its own set of autonomy goalposts, ones that are specific to its needs and show that each level is valuable.”