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The robots are coming: Autonomous vehicles on the jobsite


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Photo courtesy of articles.sae.org

Everywhere from our homes to our cars to our offices, artificial intelligence has made a big splash, slowly but surely integrating into our daily lives (whether we know it or not.) The next frontier for this rapidly emerging technology could well be the construction industry, which experts are predicting will lead to fewer jobsite injuries and accidents, and greatly increased efficiency and precision. 

Autonomous road vehicles are already well in the works, with companies from Toyota to Google to Mercedes-Benz to Lyft getting in on the revolution experimenting with driverless cars and freight trucks. So it’s really not too far outside the realm of possibility to envision a future construction site dotted with worker-less heavy equipment excavating, digging or even building structures. 

We’ve all imagined a future when human laborers are relegated to doing nothing but oiling and servicing robot workers. 

It’s not just the stuff of fantasy. Big-name heavy equipment companies like Caterpillar, Volvo and Komatsu are already dedicating resources to fitting traditional construction equipment with the requisite GPS technology, machine learning capabilities, remote control and the ability to 3D map jobsites, preparing for a future that could very well include machinery requiring human intervention, but not necessarily operation.

So let’s take a look at some of the existing automation technology that has already found a place in the industry.

Some jobsite preparation is already being trusted to autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles. In 2013, Komatsu introduced Intelligent Machine Control for earth-moving operations, which operators praise for ease of set-up and shut-down, increased safety during inclement weather and a greater degree of precision.

Caterpillar has begun offering its Cat Command technology as an option on its dozers, wheel loaders and skid steer loaders, giving operators the ability to control the machinery remotely, either on site or from many miles away.

Volvo CE recently unveiled its HX2, an autonomous, battery-electric load carrier that it says aims to reduce carbon emissions by 95% and lower cost of ownership by 25%. The HX2 even has vision capabilities, enabling it to steer clear of human workers and other obstacles.

 Of course, the natural inclination is to think these autonomous and semi-autonomous machines will gobble up human operator jobs in the construction industry. We’ve all imagined a future when human laborers are relegated to doing nothing but oiling and servicing robot workers. But in reality, self-operating machinery is likely to usher in a new era of human-robot cooperation in which skilled equipment operators are even more in demand, according to ConstructConnect.

The work being done by this autonomous heavy machinery will need to be regularly monitored to ensure quality, and a skilled human hand will still be needed to direct the equipment throughout the process. Detailed 3D maps of the jobsites will need to be created and updated as the robotic machinery progresses through the project. As the technology stands today, these autonomous machines lack the depth of thought to make them ready for primetime on most construction sites, and so far are mostly confined to industries such as agriculture and mining, according to Bloomberg BNA. Getting these machines to the level of intelligence where actual construction sites can be fully automated could still be a ways off.

Getting these machines to the level of intelligence where actual construction sites can be fully automated could still be a ways off. 

As Jenny Elfsberg, Volvo Construction Equipment’s director of emerging technologies told Bloomberg BNA, today’s machines can be automated, but not fully autonomous, and that they still lack the ability to think for themselves.

Although it’s impossible to say with certainty the effect on the industry decades from now, the trend line of early efforts by major construction companies to bring this autonomous construction equipment to virtual life can’t be ignored. At the very least, they’re putting serious R&D efforts and piles of cash behind the technology. Time will tell whether such technologies will lead to cleaner, safer jobsites where humans primarily take a supervisory role, or whether future construction sites will be without boot-prints and hard-hats altogether.

If you liked this article here a few eBooks you may enjoy: 

The Future of Construction Safety

Keeping Your Technology Up to Date

Technology Chargeback in the Construction Industry

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