Jobsite managers embrace robotics

SAN FRANCISCO — This week, Mortenson Construction and Built Robotics announced that the contractor's renewable projects will get a boost from the latter's driverless excavators and other heavy equipment, making it one of the first major construction firms to adopt robotics on a nationwide scale.
The artificial intelligence system from Built Robotics will be used mainly for digging 100-foot-diameter wells needed for wind turbine projects, according to Guarav Kikani, vice president of strategy and operations at Built Robotics.
The system, which launched a year and a half ago, automates equipment like bulldozers and skid steers for faster and safer site work. It has been used by other firms for residential excavation projects and for trenching on oil and gas jobs, Kikani told an audience at the ENR FutureTech conference earlier this week. The firm also recently announced a partnership with Sunstate Equipment Co. to bring its system to the equipment rental market.
Built Robotic’s software generates a machine’s tasks, such as where dirt should be moved, and contains the vehicle within a geofence so that it doesn’t veer off the grid. A combination of camera and LiDAR sensors allow the machine to identify and avoid pedestrians, vehicles and other obstacles on the jobsite. Operators can also override the machine at any time with hardwired and wireless emergency stop buttons.
The autonomous vehicles can work 24 hours a day, optimizing expensive equipment that would normally not be in use overnight, and turn off when the job is complete.
“All that a human needs to do is fuel the machine, grease the equipment and press go,” Kikani said during his presentation.
Another AI-based product, the rebar-tying Tybot from Advanced Construction Robotics, is in use on jobsites in several states, said FutureTech panelist Stephen Muck, Advanced Construction Robotics chairman and CEO. The machine, which is used for bridge deck construction, can expand on a frame up to 140 feet across a bridge’s width. Crews need to carry, place and frame-in only 10% of the deck rebar before Tybot can take over.
The company estimates Tybot could halve labor hours and reduce injuries workers incur while straddling rebar frames and performing the repetitive tying motion.
On the jobsite
The ENR panelists were tasked with answering an important question: As more construction firms adopt AI, how do workers in the field react to these robotic assistants? Although the presenters said it might seem as if laborers would resent attempts to automate their jobs, that hasn’t been the case.
Most of the men and women on the jobsite see the robotic systems as construction machines that help them do their jobs faster and with less accidents, Muck said. For instance, he has been pleased by the reaction of the ironworkers who work alongside the Tybot.
“They’ve really taken a forward-looking perspective on the technology,” he told the audience. “They have accepted it as a solution and not a threat.”
In fact, he said, even union officials have embraced his invention: “They see it as a way to help get the job done, because the workforce just doesn’t exist now."
In the next year, Advanced Construction Robotics plans to introduce a second robot, the IronBot, which can carry and place rebar on horizontal surfaces. Muck said it will do the work of humans in half the time.
By handling tedious tasks like these, jobsite AI gives workers time to focus on more important aspects of construction, Kikani told the audience. “We can take workers out of harm’s way and reallocate them to higher-value tasks,” he said.
Muck said the Tybot has allowed experienced laborers to stay on the job longer because it gives them the opportunity to scale back on physically demanding work.
“For an ironworker who is 60 years old and has been doing rebar work for decades, they tend to be pretty worn out,” he said. “ Moving into becoming a quality control technician on a robot allows them to extend their career.”
Even though the products have sophisticated features like embedded intelligence and machine learning capabilities, Kikani dispelled any notions that robotic systems are difficult for the typical worker to operate.
“We want to build technology that the average individual can operate,” he said. “You don’t need to have a computer scientist in the field to help you operate these."
Training tools
VR, robotics and other smart tools are helping to train the next generation of construction workers to be productive and safe, said presenter Jason Chadee, QA manager for New York City Ironworkers Local 40 and 361.
Union apprentices have responded positively to high-tech training tools like the a smart crane hook from Israel-based company Versatile Natures, VRTEX 360 welding simulators from Lincoln Electric and United Rentals’ VR simulators.
“It really boosts students’ interest and makes the learning fun,” Chadee said.
Going forward, intelligent machines will bring new levels of productivity, education and efficiency to the industry, the presenters agreed.
“There’s a massive labor shortage, and a huge backlog of infrastructure work that needs to be done in the U.S. and worldwide,” Kikani said. “We see huge opportunities in the rise of new technologies like these.”