As Silicon Valley continues working to build trust in its autonomous cars, uses for the technology behind the vehicles keeps building out.
Construction sites are the latest environment at which one could spot a self-piloted vehicle, thanks to a batch of new autonomous bulldozers being developed in the Bay Area.
The concept seems a natural outgrowth for the self-driving industry, in a field overrun by heavy-duty machines, where human error can be deadly.
Still, opponents argue that the equipment will share the more unpleasant traits of autonomous autos as well, including the potential for wiping out jobs and susceptibility to cyberattacks.
But with construction work on the rise and workforce numbers down, industry players may not have much of a choice when it comes to accepting new labor.
If You Build It…
So far, the biggest company involved in the autonomous construction game is San Francisco-based Built Robotics. The firm employs a fleet of autonomous bulldozers and other earth-moving machines being tested across the country.
Using much of the same equipment that’s been guiding self-driving autos around the streets, the robo-diggers include a suite of LiDAR sensors, GPS, and cameras, along with a digital “brain” to analyze, coordinate, and dictate their movements.
As of now, however, those actions still require a fair amount of human input. An operator must enter coordinates for the geo-fenced machine and stipulate other measurements regarding the specific task it needs to undertake. An engineer must also keep an eye on the process, though that’s anticipated to change soon.
The company has been testing its product through a pilot program allowing developers to use the machines at a discounted rate in exchange for data on the self-dozing experiments. Built Robotics hasn’t announced how much it will charge to lease its final product, though company executives have said that it would likely be less than the current rate for a rented machine and a driver, which can cost north of $100 an hour in the Bay Area.
Filling the Gap
The construction field is going through somewhat of a crisis of faith, according to the latest Commercial Construction Index. The quarterly survey is conducted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and construction materials company USG in order to gauge the confidences and concerns of contractors across the country.
Almost 65% of small contractors—considered those making $10 million or less per year—who participated in the latest poll reported having trouble finding enough “skilled” workers to complete their projects. Ninety percent of respondents expressed at least “moderate” concern over the average skill level of the workforce and 58% reported difficulty finding available workers at all.
Over a third of those surveyed believed the labor problem has gotten worse over the past six months; 41% predicted it will continue getting worse over the next six.
And there’s plenty of work to go around: nearly 80% of those surveyed reported a steady or increased backlog of projects. A majority of contractors predicted both their workload and revenue would increase over the course of the year.
(The labor trend didn’t quite skew across the entire industry. Only 41% of large firms—considered those making $100 million or more annually—cited a lack of adequate employees as a concern.)
Specifically, the contractors mentioned needing more individuals with knowledge on concrete, masonry, interior finishes, and electricity. While the robo-workers don’t quite have the finesse for some of those finer skills yet, acquiring such deftness will help with more than completing a job.
Just like their self-driving peers on the road, autonomous construction equipment has been hailed as potentially life-saving.
Workplace fatalities have risen for at least three straight years, topping out at 5,190 in 2016. That marked a 7% increase from the previous year and the first time the total had breached 5,000 since 2008, according to the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The greater construction industry is well-represented in those grisly numbers, with loggers, roofers, and iron and steel workers all ranking among the deadliest lines of work in 2016. In 2015, construction workers were more likely to be killed in a roadside incident than any other occupation, with 937 fatal accidents.
Proponents of the robotic equipment have argued that the precise nature of the computers, plus the removal of humans from the driver’s seat, will lead to a safer site overall. Built Robotics’ machines are programmed to shut off if they detect a human within their designated work area, founder Noah Ready-Campbell has said.
While the concept may seem altruistic, Ready-Campbell may have had an ulterior motive for developing the equipment.
The son of a construction contractor, he spent his summers working on sites with his father, covering a range of duties, from painting to scrapping to “digging up trash,” he recently told The Verge.
“It’s monotonous work,” Ready-Campbell said. “There are safety issues. It’s easy to zone out, make mistakes, and over-excavate a site.”
“It can be boring, too,” he added. “At the time I hated it, and thought, ‘I’m never going to do this again.’”
And if all goes according to plan, he’ll be able to ensure no one else ever does.