The galloping advances in technology—self-driving cars, drones that deliver fast food, 3D printing of vehicles—won’t soon lead to automated construction sites, a leading magazine concludes. A recent cover story in Engineering News-Record (ENR) said that technology innovations will, for now, mostly go toward making construction equipment and its operators more efficient.
“The use of autonomous equipment is likely to grow, but as an extension — and not necessarily as a replacement — of the operator,” read the article, “Anatomy of Autonomy” by equipment editor Mike Anderson.
The construction world has been tagged recently for being behind the times in adopting disruptive technology. A study by global consultant KPMG found just one-fifth of contractors and construction business owners are aggressively disrupting their business models by integrating innovative technology. Another study by the Boston Consulting Group said the construction and engineering sectors could save tens of billions of dollars annually by using technology to improve productivity.
That very goal is one of the key drivers behind the new IronDirect platform: by combining internet-connected equipment and high-tech tools, IronDirect makes it easy and cost-efficient to buy, manage, support, and resell new and used construction equipment. IronDirect includes its DirecTrac telematics system on all machines, and offers the DirectAssist smartphone app to help equipment operators and owners troubleshoot and manage equipment. “In an era of smart machines and technology, we’ve developed a smart platform that gives equipment buyers a real, bankable edge on the job site,” said Tim Frank, president of IronDirect. [See related story, “Six Ways IronDirect Uses Technology to Lead.”]
Stages of Automation in Construction Equipment
While construction sites are becoming more driven by technology, ENR reported, the mining industry is leading the push for use of autonomous equipment like haul trucks and large dozers to boost productivity and enhance safety. These machines make extensive use of technology so they can operate with minimal input by humans. The busy nature of construction sites makes it more complicated to employ truly autonomous equipment. It’s much more common to see contractors employing technology to enhance the capabilities of machines, reduce the burden on operators and boost productivity.
Semi-Autonomous Equipment — Some original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have invested heavily in technology to make certain types of equipment operable by remote control. An operator on the job site or at a remote location can operate machines such as dozers, often with the added help of satellite and GPS guidance.
Machine Control — Manufacturers and third-party vendors have developed machine control systems for excavators, dozers, motor graders, scrapers, articulated haulers, and wheel loaders. These systems use global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) to accurately control some machine functions. This allows for precision when digging or grading, which saves time, reduces fuel consumption, and prevents having to redo sections of a project. These systems also track the amount of material moved and the efficiency of haul trucks. Some products allow operators to quickly survey a job site, generate a topographical image, and create a digital cut/fill map. This works especially well with scraper tractors that tow pull-type scrapers.
Several equipment manufacturers have developed prototype autonomous dozers, wheel loaders, articulated haulers, and excavators. These machines are being tested in controlled environments and on limited job sites, but they are not ready to be incorporated into widespread use. ENR reports this technology will not drastically reduce the need for equipment operators, but it could reduce the amount of equipment on individual job sites. While construction is seeing its own technology boom, the reality of widespread autonomous construction equipment is still out on the horizon.