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The rise of autonomous technologies — such as self-driving cars, self-piloting mobile robots and automated factories — has had a major impact across the economy. In recent years, developers and robotics experts have created the first pieces of autonomous construction equipment. They will soon become part of highly complex systems that can automate some or all the work on construction sites.
Like self-driving cars, however, many advanced construction technologies have not been perfected yet. Navigation and safe operation are significant roadblocks for the technology. Despite major strides, considerable challenges have prevented the widespread adoption of autonomous construction equipment.
Fortunately, researchers and developers of autonomous construction equipment are hard at work to address these difficulties. Below is a snapshot of the industry right now, along with examples of how autonomous construction companies plan to tackle constriction industry challenges head-on.
The Current State of Autonomous Construction
The autonomous construction equipment market is valued at approximately US $9.53 billion (2019), but relatively small for a sector that accounts for revenues between US $10-$15 trillion depending of the market research source. The industry suffered significant setbacks in 2020, largely due to COVID-19’s impact on the construction sector — and the overall economy — but is on track to recover in 2021.
Construction jobs require an interdependent combination of complex equipment. Even simple construction jobs may require various machines. Examples include excavators for digging, earthmovers for transferring material and pavers for laying and paving asphalt. As a result, construction technology developers have had to find ways to automate a wide range of machinery.
As with designers in other sectors, the robotics developers targeting the construction industry started simple. For example, Built Robotics, a developer of construction robotics, began with autonomous skid steers before moving on to more complex equipment, like autonomous excavators and bulldozers.
The company, which secured $33 million in a 2019 funding round, develops self-piloting construction equipment that can handle basic tasks — like digging trenches and grading building pads — entirely on their own. Their equipment builds on previous advances in construction technology, like telematics sensors that allow supervisors to monitor equipment remotely, as well as new enabling technologies developed for other applications like machine vision powered by AI.
Other sensors built directly into construction equipment may track operational information like machine timing, vibration or temperature. Predictive maintenance systems can then use this data to foresee machine failure — giving supervisors a heads-up they may not have had otherwise.
Just Another Robot
Autonomous construction technologies, for the most part, works on similar principles as other autonomous robotics. Robotic construction systems, like all robots, employ sensing technology to acquire information about their environment. For example, cameras and LiDAR capture visual data about the construction site, allowing the autonomous construction systems map out the worksite and identify potential obstacles, site hazards and workers. The system then uses technology like machine vision to break down this information into data that can guide the systems and coordinate work.
Other sensors built directly into construction equipment may track operational information like machine timing, vibration or temperature. Predictive maintenance systems can then use this data to foresee machine failure — giving supervisors a heads-up they may not have had otherwise. Over time, this will reduce the risk of damage and downtime.
In addition, telematic sensors, GPS locators and RFID tags provide management systems with real-time data feeds on machine location. This information helps business systems know where the machines are, allowing for sitewide coordination and supervision of the robots.
As with self-driving cars, autonomous construction technologies have come a long way in recent years. However, challenges remain, some of which are unique to the construction sector. Examples include:
- Safety and Damage – The average autonomous car weighs around four tons — enough to seriously hurt anyone even at low speeds. A bulldozer or excavator may weigh as much as 10 times that figure. Any stray movement — even one that is just slightly off — could easily lead to damage and serious injury.
- Dynamic Worksites – Construction workplaces themselves are naturally harder to automate, due to how chaotic work on-site can be. An autonomous system may be able to coordinate machines in a vacuum, but how well does it do when there are dozens or hundreds of people and other equipment moving around a site? Irregular obstacles or high foot traffic can constrict autonomous equipment’s movement. Construction worksites are the poster child for “unstructured environments”.
- Dust and Dirt — Dust, dirt and other airborne contaminants are a major challenge on most construction sites. They can obscure sensors and damage componentry.
- Challenging Environments – Off-road navigation and irregular terrain also pose a major challenge for machine navigation systems. Construction work often takes place in outdoor environments which are subject to difficult and changing weather conditions.
- “Struck-by” Incidents — Instances where a vehicle or falling object strikes workers are already one of the most common accidents on construction sites, according to OSHA data. Any autonomous machine, even with safety precautions and guardrails, could make sites less safe. Conversely, autonomous systems do not get fatigued or distracted, and as such hold the promise of reducing struck-by events.
- Costs and Profits – For any type of business, costs, revenue and profits are critical considerations and metrics. But compared to many other markets, construction industry margins can vary significantly — with some reports showing that general contractors make a pre-tax profit of just around 1 to 2%.
- Conservative Industry – For an industry with nearly $10 trillion in annual revenue—about 6 percent of global GDP— the construction sector one of the least automated. Though construction is a huge industry, it also is a deeply conservative one that is famously stubborn in its adoption of new technology. It is also the case that construction companies often do not have the cash flow to invest in the newest technology — especially cutting-edge tech like autonomous construction equipment. Instead, many companies rely on used equipment, as it is typically much cheaper than new equipment while being about as reliable.
Of course, safety improvements for autonomous systems is not solely dependent of the technology alone. The management and correct use of autonomous machines are also critical concerns.
Functionality and Safety
Advances in machine vision and developments in related fields are working to improve the safety of autonomous systems. Every upgrade to the technology behind self-driving cars, for example, will enhance collision prevention and navigation features in autonomous construction equipment.
Improvements in other sensing technologies, along with RFID technologies will also help. For example, some construction companies are already using RFID-tagged safety equipment to prevent collisions and backover incidents. Onboard safety systems regularly scan for these tags. If the system detects a tag in front of or behind a vehicle, it will alert operators when they try to move the machine forward or backward. The same tech could improve autonomous construction equipment’s safety.
More Than Technology
Of course, safety improvements for autonomous systems is not solely dependent of the technology alone. The management and correct use of autonomous machines are also critical concerns. For example, improved training will also help make these robots safer.
Because autonomous construction equipment has many safety guardrails and fail safe features, workers can sometimes assume these machines are more secure than their human-operated counterparts. However, as reliable as construction robotics systems are, they still pose a significant safety risk — and can easily cause injuries in the same way as a manual machine.
If workers are aware of the potential safety risks these machines pose, and the steps they can take to keep themselves unharmed, they will make robotics systems much safer and more practical for regular use. Some construction industry experts are even hopeful that autonomous tech will improve safety if implemented correctly.
Developments in machine vision, collaborative robotics technology and AI / machine learning all have the potential to make autonomous machines much more practical.
Rapid Innovation and a Changing Industry
Autonomous technology and robotics — both within and without the construction industry — are rapidly becoming much more sophisticated, and this trend is only expected to accelerate. Developments in machine vision, collaborative robotics technology and AI / machine learning all have the potential to make autonomous machines much more practical.
Still, there remain significant challenges for companies that want to adopt autonomous technology in the construction industry. Safety, especially, will be a major hurdle. Fortunately, construction industry researchers and solution providers are optimistic that these challenges can be overcome — and that, in time, autonomous construction technology will increase construction productivity and quality, and make construction sites safer.
About the Author
Rose Morrison is an Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) industry writer and the managing editor of Renovated. She is passionate about how technology is transforming the construction industry and making it safer and more efficient.”
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