Autonomous Construction Vehicles Are Closer than You May Think

AVs are doing materials handling now, and pile driving and excavation will likely be next. 

Cities are hurrying to get self-driving cars on their streets, with manufacturers all too willing to oblige. Just as these cars are already roaming streets in municipalities that are testing them, autonomous construction equipment is making its way to some jobsites.

Dozens of autonomous haulers from Caterpillar and other manufacturers are hauling dirt for mining operations in Australia. Mining is the lowest-hanging fruit for autonomous heavy equipment because of the well-defined, highly repetitive nature of the work the trucks perform. The vehicles repeat the same task over and over and cover the same ground each time.

“They’re really used on the large transporters that are moving whatever’s being mined around in the mine, especially open mines,” said Helge Jacobsen, United Rentals’ vice president for operations excellence and general manager of the Advanced Solutions Group, which partners with original equipment manufacturers to develop and implement autonomous and IoT-enabled solutions for customers.

On construction sites, by contrast, tasks change constantly and conditions are unpredictable. So as far as getting automated equipment on construction sites goes, there’s some rough terrain ahead. But the presence of AVs on jobsites might be closer than you think.

First up: Materials handling

Within construction, materials handling is where the industry will see the biggest early adoption, said Jacobsen.

“When you look at where we have had success within United Rentals on adoption of our autonomous solutions, it’s really in materials handling on jobsites. We are providing solutions for repetitive, mundane job tasks where you’re moving material from a laydown yard to the jobsite.” The company expects to have  25 to 50 of its compact track loaders and telehandlers running autonomously on jobsites by year’s end.

Materials handling is both simple and time consuming, making it an ideal candidate for automation. “When you see the research being done on construction today,” said Jacobsen, “the consensus is there’s between 30 and 50 percent wasted time, and most of that is in the transportation of material. We are actually very effective and efficient as an industry at building the building, but we spend a lot of time staging and finding and moving the material.”

Next up: Piling

Next up for AVs, said Jacobsen, will be repetitive tasks “that have a little more value add to them.” For United Rentals, piling is the next application on the roadmap. “You can use the precise location of the equipment, you know exactly where you are and you can do the piing very precisely and do that autonomously.”

The big kahuna: Excavation

After piling will likely come excavation. Jacobsen predicts that autonomous excavators will make an appearance within about 12 to 18 months.

There’s a major benefit to having this work performed by autonomous machines. “Excavation is on a critical path for any jobsite, and with autonomous equipment you enable just-in-time, very precise work, and you enable 24/7 operations,” Jacobsen said.  With autonomous excavators, productivity could explode. “Every hour that you can take out of the excavation process enables you to deliver your building faster.”

Built Robotics, which launched in late 2017, is developing autonomous software for earthmoving equipment and it has a working prototype, as do other companies. But autonomous earth movers aren’t yet ready for wide adoption, said Jacobsen. That will change, however — and soon.

“Excavation will be done autonomously two to three years from now, there’s no doubt in my mind.”

Freelance writer Mary Lou Jay writes about business and technical developments in a variety of industries. She has been covering residential and commercial construction for more than 25 years.