In the three years since it was founded, Built Robotics has progressed considerably from an automated compact track loader to a research fleet of seven heavy equipment machines. So what exactly are their goals? Do we need to worry about robotic overlords taking the form of compact track loaders and skid steers?
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- Update on the Built Robotics Self-Driving CTL
- Self-Driving Track Loaders
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Built Robotics was founded in 2016 by Noah Ready-Campbell, an entrepreneur with a first-hand knowledge of construction. His idea was simple: why not take the technology behind self-driving cars and use it to develop self-driving (or self-operating) construction equipment? With a combination of GPS, LIDAR, computer imaging, WiFi, and an array of sensors, Built Robotics did just that.
Expanding … and Digging Deeper
Their original machine was a CTL nicknamed “Mary Anne” and was used back in 2018 to assist with construction on a commercial site in Billings, Montana. The Built Robotics fleet has expanded, however, to include a full-size, 80,000 lbs excavator and a bulldozer, both outfitted with their automation kit that includes GPS, LIDAR, and other electronic tools to allow these machines to work safely and productively without a human operator behind the controls. And they have been doing well with these autonomous machines -- their website boasts 6,158 hours of automated operation and they have completed 10 construction projects.
Benefits of Robotic Construction Equipment
Unlike human operators, these machines can work in difficult conditions, such as night-time or in extreme dust, because their do not depend as heavily on visual imaging as humans do. And, unlike people, they do not get bored or tired, leading to carelessness or a lack of safety. They are also ideal for working in conditions that simply would not be safe for humans, not unlike how the mining industry uses remote-controlled equipment in dangerous areas. In addition, these machines can be given a computerized map of what they need to do and abide by those instructions.
Drawbacks of Robotic Construction Equipment
Many have cited safety issues as the major drawback with robotic machines. Built Robotics has included a number of safety features (e.g., machine will turn off if it goes outside a certain area, there are instant shutdown buttons on the machine and the tablet that controls it). How well they would work in a busy construction site surrounded by unpredictable human beings is another matter. The machines also have their limitations in what they can do at this time.
Labor Shortage Driven
For those concerned about these machines taking away jobs from operators, it is important to remember that the construction industry is seeing a major shortage in skilled labor -- a shortage that is expected to grow worse in the next few years. Built Robotics goal is not to replace human operators, but rather using automated equipment to perform repetitive tasks to free up skilled operators to focus on more challenging tasks.
How bad is the labor shortage? Well, according to the US Chamber of Commerce, about 90% of U.S. general contractors reported serious concern over the shortage of skilled labor. Fox Business reported that 37% of contractors indicated that the shortage of skilled labor has increased the costs of bids and contracts while causing projects to require more time to complete.
With companies like Built Robotics adapting the technology for self-driving cars so that we can have self-operating construction equipment, there is some concern that the machines might take the place of operators. However, with the current shortage of genuinely skilled, experienced operators, that does not seem to be an immediate concern. No computer program can ever take the place of a talented operator who takes pride in their work.