Why Autonomous Equipment Will Revolutionize the Construction Industry

SOURCE: AEM | February 29, 2020

Moving earth and building roads with the help of autonomous equipment isn’t a reality just yet, but it seems safe to say it’s where the construction industry is headed in the not-too-distant future.

While it’s easy to see why driverless construction machinery might cause contractors undue worry about lost jobs, jobsite accidents or other potentially negative consequences, Cameron Clark wants to alleviate those fears. Clark, who leads AEM member company Trimble’s efforts to bring autonomy to civil construction, believes autonomous machines offer a uniquely valuable opportunity – even if it will be one that will take some time to develop.

“We’re already on the path of automation,” says Clark, Trimble’s earthworks business manager. “We have gone from people on site putting stakes in the ground to 3D machine control where you can remove the stakes and control the blade automatically to keep grade.”

From Automation to Autonomy

Earthmoving manufacturers have been adding automation to machines for years now. And, according to Clark, there are currently more than 100,000 machines equipped with machine control today.

For example, a dozer with machine control would qualify as Grade 1 automation using SAE’s levels of automation, where “0” equals no automation and “5” equals full autonomy. It should also be noted that, while semi-autonomous equipment helps improve productivity on the jobsite, it will still rely on the intelligence and wherewithal of skilled operators for the foreseeable future. According to Clark: 

  • Experienced operators run 41 percent faster and 75 percent more accurate
  • New operators run 28 percent faster and 100 percent more accurate
  • As steering and other machine tasks become more automated, the construction industry can expect to see even greater efficiencies
  • Key categories of autonomous machinery moving forward should be compactors, dozers and excavators

Addressing the Skills Gap

It’s no secret the construction industry is in the midst of an extremely dire skilled labor shortage, and the need for more heavy equipment operators is not expected to change anytime soon. Clark said he believes the dearth of equipment operators coupled with increased global infrastructure spending will drive the increased prevalence of autonomous construction equipment moving forward.

“It’s hard to do the work we have now,” he continued. “With growing and infrastructure energy needs, there is going to be increased demand for work in developing nations. If we can’t find people in developed nations, what are we going to do in developing nations?” 

According to Clark, autonomous construction equipment will be part of the solution, especially in remote areas, for repetitive tasks and in locations where labor shortages are significant.

To be an actual jobsite solution, an autonomous solution needs to be more than just a solution for a single machine. In fact, it needs to work with all of the machines, not to mention other assets and people on the jobsite.

“Contractors want to make sure they have an ecosystem solution,” says Clark.

One area where Trimble is expected to focus on in the future is machine-to-machine communication. A prime example would be two compactors working in concert with a dozer, where automation tells the compactor exactly where to go next on the jobsite.

“It’s about fleet management,” says Clark. “Determining what machines are needed, providing improvements in planning and bidding and helping operators make real-time decisions.” 

According to Trimble’s earthworks business manager, it would greatly benefit the construction industry if automated machines took on more mundane tasks while operators handled value-added jobs. Additional automation might also help reduce fatigue and stress on human operators, resulting in improved safety. Instead of traveling away from home for weeks at a time, an equipment operator might transition to a different role managing equipment remotely.

The Bottom Line

No one is predicting a jobsite without people in the near future. And, according to Clark, there’s more complexity with a construction site than with cars and trucks that just need to get from point A to point B. The process will take time, but autonomous machines clearly have a role to play in the future of the construction industry.

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