Photomontage / Shutterstock
By the year 2057, it has been estimated by the Midwest Economic Policy Institute (MEPI) that the use of robots on construction sites will replace or displace approximately 2.7 million jobs in this industry. The recent advancements in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) software that have allowed self-driving cars, trucks, boats and buses to become commonplace on roads have also been applied to the construction industry for autonomous excavation purposes.
What is Involved in Excavation?
Excavation-based operations on a typical construction site involve the transportation of earth, rock or other materials. Some of the most commonly used earth-moving machines include bulldozers, wheel loaders, excavators, scrapers and graders. In addition to large-scale movement of materials, excavation-based operations can also be used for smaller operations such as trenching and footing formation.
Early Autonomous Excavators
Early research developments on autonomous excavation were often limited in their ability to develop full-scale excavators that did not require human interference. Some of the earliest experimental studies in this field utilized conventional industrial robots that were fitted with buckets, which were used to excavate loose sand. Unfortunately, since excavators are typically used to change the profile of the material being worked, these early models were limited in their usefulness for such purposes.
As a result of the inherent limitations that were associated with these early robotic excavation systems, the Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR) completed an extensive autonomous excavation project in the early 2000s that was aimed at creating fully autonomous excavation systems. In their work, the researchers created their experimental robotic excavator by modifying the traditional technology of a Komatsu PC05-7 hydraulic mini-excavator.
The methodology utilized by ACFR combined behavior-based and hierarchical architectures that provide the excavator with human expert knowledge to plan, control and perform excavator operations. The experimental results achieved by ACFR’s project provided the foundation for many autonomous robotic excavation systems currently in use today.
Modern Autonomous Excavators
A number of startup technology companies have emerged in an effort to reduce the danger that is often associated with construction work by instead replacing human labor with robotic technologies. A widely known technology company that has remained focused on such work is Built Robotics. Founded in 2016, Built Robotics is a San Francisco-based company that is dedicated to providing safe, fast and productive robotic technologies to the construction site. With a specific interest in automating excavation operations, Built Robotics has released a fleet of autonomous earth movers, including dozers, excavators and skid steers.
The specific technology that has been incorporated into all Built Robotics systems is their Automated Track Loader (ATL). The Built Robotics ATL technology relies on specially designed light detection and ranging (LiDAR) sensing that allows the robotic system to detect vibrations that direct where the system should move next. Additionally, ATL’s LiDAR sensing capabilities allow the system to measure the material as it is being excavated. Rather than requiring construction companies to purchase a completely new fleet of equipment, Built Robotics has designed their ATL electronics to fit within a compact cargo carrier that can then be attached directly onto existing compact loaders.
Each of the systems created by Built Robotics are equipped with a multilayer safety system that ensures 100% safe operation when in use. This multilayer system includes a variety of sensors that are used to detect the presence of workers, animals and other vehicles that are adjacent to the system in order to prevent potential collisions on site. Additionally, all Built Robotics systems are equipped with a wireless emergency stop feature that can be remotely activated in the event that a safety observer identifies a potential hazard during their operation.