Association of Equipment Manufacturers
It’s hard to ignore the increasing attention autonomous construction equipment is receiving. Heavy equipment autonomy announcements in just the past year include:
SafeAI demonstrated a retrofitted autonomous truck,
Shantui developed an unmanned bulldozer, and
SRI International’s prototype robotic excavator.
But will we ever get to the time when humans are rare on a job site? And is that even the point?
A Quick Review
All industries, including construction, have been the beneficiaries of U.S. defense research, says Bibhrajit Halder, founder and CEO of SafeAI. This program included the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Grand Challenge in the early 2000s, designed to accelerate autonomous vehicle technologies. “That was a trigger point,” says 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, where there is zero human interaction in operating a vehicle.
“No one has a true Level 5 system yet,” says William Nassauer, manager of product strategy for Komatsu America. That assessment includes the automotive sector, which, although leading the autonomous journey, has had significant bumps along the way.
As 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 says, "all machines have a shared mission, and no one machine can accomplish it without the other machines. So 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 they are controlling; 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.
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.
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 system gives the vehicle’s location, perception, and direction. Halder says a staff member who works from a cloud-based project model orchestrates the operation.
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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Jan/Feb 2023 issue, Vol. 12, No. 1.