From Construction Data
When you show up at ConExpo in Las Vegas next March you should expect to see a wide range of bulldozers, graders, and excavators capable of doing site prep without any operators behind the controls.

This trend has been coming for the best part of a decade, but the new generation of equipment that will be on display will include some that is cab-less with no manual controls. For the time being there will still be operators but their job will change dramatically, either standing at a safe distance operating the machine remotely or monitoring the work from the jobsite trailer or even back at the office 50 miles away.

Caterpillar, which first showed dozers with GPS capability in 2003, has developed more sophisticated systems with their CAT Command technology equipped on mining machines. Current capabilities include remote control and semi-autonomous operation of their dozing and underground loading equipment and complete autonomous operation of haul trucks. Caterpillar is migrating this technology from the controlled environment of the mines to their construction equipment.

Komatsu introduced their Intelligent Machine Control (IMC) back in 2013 with their D61i-23 dozer with fully automatic blade control. The blade is automatically controlled according to 3D CAD construction data with the coordinates computed from design drawings. Last year they launched their Smart Construction program pairing their IMC equipment with drones from San Francisco-based Skycatch. The drones are used to created 3D terrain maps used in conjunction with the 3D models of the finished site plans to allow the equipment to operate unmanned to perform the site work.

Last year Case CE combined their SiteWatch telematics and SiteControl machine control solutions technology together as Site Solutions to improve their current offerings. Case has been in partnership with Leica Geosystems since 2014 in order to better integrate machine control systems into their equipment.

Volvo CE is working with a number of universities to create autonomous construction equipment that will improve energy efficiency tenfold, be emission free and result in zero accidents. The goal is to have equipment that is aware of its surroundings and able to adapt to changing conditions. Volvo also tracks human behavior with their Humans in the Loop (HITL) simulators to create machines that are aware of operator’s workloads and can provide assistance with autonomous function and support systems.

How does it work?

A 3D map of the existing site is created using laser scanners, total stations, mobile mapping and aerial imaging using UAVs, or drones. Civil engineers then create site development plans which are then converted to 3D models. The autonomous machines are then deployed on site and sensors, cameras and a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) such as GPS are used to pinpoint the equipment’s location on the site. The software uses real-time data transmitted from the heavy equipment along with the 3D map of the existing site and the 3D model from the site plans to instruct the equipment on where to go and how much earth to excavate, position the dozer blades for grading, etc.

The whole time the equipment is operating it is sending back data on the work being completed so the software is continuously updating the 3D map to reflect the constantly changing environment in regards to the terrain and site conditions. The equipment is also transmitting telematics data, basically real-time diagnostics data from the various components on the equipment, such as speed, fuel consumption, engine temperature, etc. This real-time monitoring allows for an operator to ensure that the work is being done accurately and that the equipment is operating as efficiently as possible.

Autonomous and semi-autonomous equipment will allow owners to employ workers with little to no experience. The reason being that the learning curve to adequately operate equipment can be greatly reduced. Owners not wanting to invest the time and resources to train an inexperienced candidate on standard equipment will probably be more open to autonomous equipment since they could have a new employee up and running in a fraction of the time. This would open up the labor pool to address the growing worker shortage the construction industry is currently facing.