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Robots breaking new ground in the construction industry

By Karen Graham     Mar 19, 2018 in Technology
With the development of self-driving cars, trucks, buses and delivery vehicles, it was only a matter of time before heavy machinery became self-driving. Now, a San Francisco startup has disrupted the construction industry with an autonomous bulldozer.
Former Google engineer, Noah Ready-Campbell worked for his father's construction business as a teenager, and he remembers the dirty, tedious parts of his job, such as digging and leveling soil for building projects.
In 2016, Ready-Campbell founded San Francisco, California-based Built Robotics, raising $15 million to hire engineers and get a product on the market. Now, the new company is set to disrupt the $130 billion excavation industry with a fleet of autonomous earth-movers.
"The idea behind Built Robotics is to use automation technology to make construction safer, faster and cheaper," said Ready-Campbell, standing in a dirt lot where a small bulldozer moved mounds of soil without a human operator. Built Robotics has a showroom, of sorts — almost an entire acre of dirt-filled construction space where the equipment is tested and refined.
Photo of a bulldozer.
Photo of a bulldozer.
Flickr user swong95765
Built Robotics transforms the construction industry
Ready-Campbell's company is just one of many startups using automation to transform the construction industry, which has lagged behind other sectors in embracing technological innovation.
Making use of venture capital, companies are developing robots, drones, software and other technologies that will make construction safer and boost speed and productivity.
The robotic bulldozers use sensors like LIDAR and GPS to “see” the world around them. Ready-Campbell points out that while self-driving cars are programmed to be accurate down to the centimeter, autonomous construction equipment, working in a confined space are programmed to behave differently.
“We actually need [our machinery] to excavate with dirt and collide with the environment and do its job,” Ready-Campbell says. “You’d never want a self-driving car to collide with its environment.”
Construction industry lags behind
CNBC is reporting that while the construction industry began going through a boom last year, it is now facing a severe labor shortage, struggling to find enough skilled labor to tackle a backlog of building projects.
"We need all of the robots we can get, plus all of the workers working, in order to have economic growth," said Michael Chui, a partner at McKinsey Global Institute in San Francisco. "As machines do some of the work that people used to do, the people have to migrate and transition to other forms of work, which means lots of retraining."
CTV News reports that a recent survey by the Associated General Contractors of America found that 70 percent of construction firms are having trouble finding skilled workers.
"To get qualified people to handle a loader or a haul truck or even run a plant, they're hard to find right now," said Mike Moy, a mining plant manager at Lehigh Hanson. "Nobody wants to get their hands dirty anymore. They want a nice, clean job in an office."
kespry drone doing an insurance inspection in June of 2017.
kespry drone doing an insurance inspection in June of 2017.
Kespry Drone Solutions
The Lehigh Hanson mining plant in Sunol, California is saving time and money by using a drone to measure the giant piles of rock and sand the company sells for construction. Moy points out the autonomous quadcopter can survey the entire 90-acre site in 25 minutes.
Previously, the company had to hire a contractor to survey the site and that often took all day, using a laser mounted on a truck to measure the piles. The drone is made by Silicon Valley-based Kespry, and converts uploaded data into detailed 3-D maps and charges an annual subscription fee for its services.
Ready-Campbell envisions a future where construction work becomes a partnership between humans and smart machines. "The robots basically do 80 percent of the work, which is more repetitive, more dangerous, more monotonous," he said. "And then the operator does the more skilled work, where you really need a lot of finesse and experience."
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