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By John Biggs
November 12, 2018
Advances in autonomous technology have led to the introduction of numerous types of self-driven machinery and equipment in construction and adjacent industries. We’ve seen automated bricklaying robots, self-driving bulldozers and of course, autonomous drones that follow pre-programmed flight paths and return home. A relatively new entrant to the world of autonomous machinery is the tower crane, which represents an enormous cost center for construction firms and has great potential for an efficiency overhaul.
Construction’s productivity numbers have been sagging or flat for a long time. Overshooting budgets or timelines is rampant in the sector, and every instance impacts individual companies’ bottom lines. These inefficiencies are especially notable when it comes to large projects. According to McKinsey, the vast majority of construction mega-projects end up going over time and over budget, with 98% facing cost overruns of more than 30%, and 77% exceeding their estimated completion dates by 40%.
Seeing figures like these, and other ways in which the sector lagged in productivity, engineer brothers Tzach and Mor Ram-On started IntSite, a startup with the mission of improving construction through widespread adoption of digital technology.
IntSite recently received $1.35 million in pre-seed funding led by Terra Venture Partners and the Israel Innovation Authority to help fund what the brothers call the world’s first autonomous crane system. Tzach and Mor, both graduates of the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, have the stated goal to “bring cranes into the 21st century,” according to ICST.
This technology is more than just a flash in the pan, and as more sectors from manufacturing to commercial storage catch on to the transformative potential of automation, it’s only expected to grow. According to Markets and Markets, the industrial robotics market is expected to grow to an estimated $71.72 billion by 2023.
“We believe the construction industry has vast potential for improving productivity and efficiency through digitalization, innovative technologies, and new construction techniques,” Terra Venture Partners managing partner Astorre Modena told VentureBeat.
“This sector is where marketing was 16 years ago before the introduction of Salesforce — less than one percent of revenues from construction are spent on software, compared to counterparts spending of 3.5-4.5%. We’re excited for IntSite to realize its potential.”
IntSite leverages computer vision software and an array of camera feeds to give the crane situational awareness, which the system uses to alert operators to nearby workers or obstacles. The crane’s controls are automated using that real-time visual data, which improves its precision of movement by up to 30%, according to Internet of Business. The company expects to roll out pilots of its system in France and the U.K. early next year.
IntSite isn’t alone in developing autonomous technology involving cranes. A harbor in Caofedian, China is on pace to become the world’s first fully autonomous harbor by the end of 2018, using self-driving trucks developed by a US-Chinese startup called TuSimple, and automated cranes provided by another company. Both systems, controlled via a central computer system, will essentially run the harbor together, according to SingularityHub.
“The potential for automating systems in harbors and ports is staggering when considering the number of deep-water and inland ports around the world. At the same time, the closed, controlled nature of a port environment makes it a perfect proving ground for autonomous truck technology,” Robert Brown, Director of Public Affairs at TuSimple told SingularityHub.
Jobsite automation provokes a range of feelings, depending on who you’re asking. The natural inclination of workers is to worry about their job being replaced by a machine that doesn’t require rest, doesn’t take lunch breaks and never goes on vacation. But the reality may well be a future in construction that integrates automation technology in a way that augments and improves the abilities of their workers instead of replacing them.
With approximately 100,000 tower cranes currently in use on U.S. construction sites, there's a big opportunity to improve efficiency and cut down on overruns on exactly the kinds of projects most susceptible to them. It's another example how digitization and automation are keys to modernizing the industry and busting that low-productivity streak.
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