Driverless Construction Equipment: The Arrival of Autonomous Vehicles and Drones

Published February 22, 2017 by Whirlwind Team

driverless construction equipment

The 21st century is taking the construction industry by storm. Tightening environmental regulations, labor shortages, and the desire to innovate are all pushing the envelope in construction equipment.

With other industries adopting these new technologies, it isn’t surprising to find them moving into the construction arena. If nothing else, people are going to bring the things they use elsewhere onto the jobsite as they see a use for them. Haven’t you ever been on a project and said, “I wonder when we will see X for project updates.” Or, “Do you think X would work for erecting a steel barn?”

Driverless construction equipment, robotics, and electric vehicles are slowly but surely moving onto the jobsite. 

Using drones on construction sites

Drones are already seen around a number of construction sites. They are invaluable for monitoring construction progress, taking pictures for clients, and scouting locations.

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  • Skycatch is using drones extensively on some pretty important projects. They use them for bird’s eye views of their sites to get progress reports. They have also discovered the unique viewpoints of drones help tremendously with logistics, speeding up deliveries and placements.

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  • Komatsu uses drones to capture images to be used in 3D building models with real-to-life dimensions of the actual building site. A computer can send the information to unmanned machinery to plot a course around the site. Could this be the beginning of robotic building construction

The benefits of autonomous (driverless) vehicles

Currently, autonomous vehicle control is moving through several technologies on its way to the construction site. Machine learning and guidance, telematics, and remote control are all methods under consideration for taking the driver out of the cab.

Basic automation is already here; many bulldozers use machine learning for blade control. The angle of attack can be consistently optimized through the use of automation. Backhoes have a "return-to-dig" function to turn back to the required position and continue work automatically. Much of the rider comfort control has been automated, as well.

  • Safer working conditions. Safety is the primary motivation for automating construction sites. Other incentives are building:
    • Efficiency
    • Operational consistency
    • Data gathering to improve machine learning
    • Growing shortage of heavy equipment operators
    • General contractors and management firms want to remain competitive in an industry with very thin margins
  • Improved cost containment. Cost containment is attained through optimized fuel consumption and operations. Paired with drones, as on the Japanese sites, autonomous vehicles can be guided in more efficient patterns and provide better fuel usage and shortened schedules. Supply logistics are better matched to the needs onsite with up-to-the-minute positioning data.
  • Operations and telematics improvement. Mining and agriculture have adopted autonomous vehicles more readily than construction, partly because the patterns of movement for operations in both industries are less random. Construction sites do not have predictable and repetitive tasks that take place over a standard topology.

Right now, a GPS can locate whether a man or a machine is idle or in motion. Telematics can provide builders with fuel consumption data, and other metrics are easily extracted from such technology, but the jobsite conditions can and do change quickly. Such changes cause difficulties in adopting full-scale, driverless heavy vehicle deployment.

      • New job class development. New job classes will be created which include operators who have learned to pilot equipment remotely as well as people to analyze machine data in an effort to refine the conventional dirt and materials movement. Construction processes could also benefit.

Another big question is: what happens to human operators and drivers? There is a critical shortage of workers, but equipment manufacturers seem to be wary of displacing a loyal customer demographic. On the other hand, the same manufacturers want to empower operators with technology to enable the operator and the machine to become more capable and productive.

It’s a difficult conundrum that will probably be sorted out over time rather than overnight.

Other robotics advances in construction

In other news, the Swiss are looking into using robotics to replace masons for setting mortar and stone into the proper places. Drones are being used for more than video and photo capture; some are being equipped to lift and place polystyrene blocks. There is also an experimental robot that has been shown building a structure from rocks and string.


Embracing automation in construction

The future is upon us. Whether you like it or not, change is on its way. Eventually, some of these things will come to pass while others fall by the wayside. Robotics, driverless vehicles, and new methods of creating and placing materials are on their way.  You do not need to be an early adopter, but you should start researching and studying the technology that will most impact your business and career.

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