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Autonomous construction vehicles could possibly replace an entire site work crew.
Autonomous construction vehicles could possibly replace an entire site work crew.
( Source: gemeinfrei / Pixabay)

Specialty AVs These are the top 10 leaders in construction vehicles

| Author / Editor: Seth Lambert / Nicole Kareta

Because of the rigor and repetition inherent in construction work, this industry is highly suitable for the application of autonomous vehicles (AVs).

The construction industry is an ideal market for AVs for two reasons: first, there is an ongoing labor shortage, and second, the industry is perenially in need of any new tools or technology that can improve safety.

“Two-thirds of contractors report that they're having a hard time finding skilled workers,” says Noah Ready-Campbell, the founder of aftermarket construction AV firm Built Robotics (see below). As a result, top contractors in different regions of the United States have more work than they’re able to handle because they can’t find enough skilled workers to meet demand. “So they view automation as not even a way to reduce costs,” says Ready-Campbell. “It's more about enabling them to grow and take on more work that they would have to turn down otherwise.” Ready-Campbell and others believe that autonomous construction AVs can be a solution, particularly in remote areas where importing skilled labor can be costly.

Another factor that makes autonomous construction AVs appealing is safety. Since heavy machinery was invented, accidents have been inseparable from its operation. If an operator can manage a project from a distance, the chances of injuries occurring are lessened, and chronic exposure to dust, shock, and vibration is decreased.

Autonomous construction vehicles could possibly replace an entire site work crew. On most typical jobs (grading, excavating, and other work preparing a building site for construction), a crew of several people operate an excavator, ensure grading, and manually perform labor that machines can’t or won’t do. An excavator AV would still need supervision, but one person could potentially oversee more than one machine simultaneously, so automation is able to result in significant labor cost savings, particularly on big projects.

Time is a critically valuable commodity in the construction industry. Construction AVs can operate 24 hours per day, replacing not just one shift of workers, but two or three, and allow contractors to meet tight deadlines safely.

For safety, in the case of excavation work, an excavator AV has three separate layers of redundant features. The first layer is object detection, including the use of LiDAR to avoid obstacles, such as people and/or other vehicles. The second layer is geofencing, so the vehicle can only operate within a predefined area. The third layer is a two-part kill-switch, one part of which is mounted on the vehicle itself and the other of which is wireless.

The next frontier for construction AVs may be the one where several machines work together synchronously. Some industry experts believe that machines are best-suited to handling predictable, repetitive tasks, while humans operators ideally handle value-added tasks; at this point in time, no one is predicting work sites totally without people just yet. These kinds of fleet-management planning and scheduling activities will likely become part of construction AV platform software and systems designed to automate not just individual vehicles, but whole job sites.

AV Players in the Construction Industry

Liebherr and Volvo

Swiss-German industrial equipment maker Liebherr has been automating its vehicles—starting with oversized off-road hauling trucks, particularly those used in the mining industry—since at least 2017. The company works with Petersboro, Utah-based aftermarket mining AV platform maker Autonomous Solutions Inc. (ASI) and Newport News, Virginia-based AV firm Perrone Robotics to add autonomous capability to its massive off-road haul trucks like the 600-tonne T282C, which carries a payload of 363 tonnes.

Liebherr also uses semi-autonomous versions of its articulated dump trucks (ADTs) for testing at the company’s development center in Kirchdorf, Germany, however, it’s unclear if this AV technology will become commercialized.

In May 2019, Liebherr showed off its 7XX cab-less concept bulldozer being driven remotely in conjunction with an operator-less version of the company’s L550 wheel loader.

“We expect standard dozers with similar teleoperation functions to be available soon,” said Alexander Katrycz, the head of marketing for Liebherr-Werk Telfs GmbH. The remotely operated vehicles could function in hazardous environments, such as areas with steep slopes. Liebherr intends to deliver all its earthmoving and material-handling vehicles with the firm’s Internet of Things (IoT)-connected intuitive user interface (INTUSI) in the future.

In June 2020, Swedish construction AV division Volvo Autonomous Solutions (VAS)—a part of larger firm AB Volvo—won a Red Dot Product Design award for its commercial-prototype, 15-tonne-capacity TA15 autonomous battery-electric hauler dump truck, developed by Volvo Construction Equipment (CE). The operating-cab-less TA15 is based on Volvo’s earlier cab-less HX02 concept dump truck AV first introduced in March 2017.

The TA15 is just one element of VAS’ TARA electric hauling transport solution, which also includes charging stations, a control tower, cloud communication technology, and setup support. The system allows multiple TA15s to be connected in a hauling “train” of vehicles. VAS also has developed low-profile/sled-like, cab-less, on-road battery-electric truck-tractor AVs as part of its VERA truck AV program. The height of the VERA vehicles is distinctively less than two meters. In addition, VAS manages a set of diesel-powered, full-size, on-road FH truck AVs that in a pilot operation carry out quarry haulage tasks at the Brønnøy Kalk Velfjord mining site.

Other autonomous construction AV concepts Volvo CE has produced include the electric cab-less ZEUX Wheel Loader—designed in association with the Technic brand of Danish children’s toy company Lego, the hybrid diesel/electric LX1 wheel loader (which features a driver cab), the EX01 mobile crawler excavator, and the high-powered, electric-grid-connected EC750 excavator.

Komatsu and Caterpillar

Japanese construction vehicle builder Komatsu has been testing automated vehicles since at least 1990 and using them since 2005 when the company began deploying automated hauling systems (AHS) trucks at the Radomiro Tomic copper mine near Calama, Chile. Komatsu automated hauling trucks were formally rolled out for Chilean state-owned copper-mining firm Codelco in January 2008.

Komatsu uses software called FrontRunner for machine guidance and operation and a separate application, Dispatch, for fleet management. Komatsu says its operators using these systems can manage up to 30 trucks at once at a job site to enable “precise placement of dumped loads, absolute control of material destinations, [and] consistent haul-cycle times.”

For AHS, Komatsu offers its 255-tonne-payload 830E-AT, 320-tonne-payload 930E-AT, and 363-tonne-payload 980E-AT diesel/AC-electric-drive hauling trucks.

“Autonomous systems need to work in tight conjunction with optimized fleet management to realize maximum benefits,” says Brian Yureskes, Komatsu’s director of global business development. “Reducing variability and increasing safety—that’s what automation is all about.”

Komatsu has stated that in the 12 years since the company’s AHS trucks were first rolled out (nearly 150 are in operation at nine mine sites on three continents), there have been no injuries associated with them. Moreover, load and haul unit costs have been reduced up to 15%, while tire life has seen a 40% improvement over manned operation.

In 2016, Komatsu showed off its unmanned, cab-less, weight-distributed Innovative Autonomous Haulage Vehicle (IAHV) concept dump truck and was testing remote operation of the company’s PC7000 shovel at its American proving grounds in Arizona in 2018. Komatsu previously stated that it was aiming for 2020 commercialization of these vehicles, but so far, no announcements have been made.

Deerfield, Illinois-based construction vehicle maker Caterpillar began testing autonomous functionality with the firm’s bulldozers using early versions of its Command for Dozing AV platform in 2011. Today, one operator can use the platform to operate three Caterpillar’s D11T bulldozers semi-autonomously.

In 2013, Caterpillar began delivering off-road automated hauling trucks, such as the 363-tonne-payload 797F, for the mining and heavy-duty construction industries. That same year, the company also began automating its 227-tonne-payload 793F trucks and its 181-tonne-payload 789D trucks. For automation of off-road hauling trucks, Caterpillar has developed the Cat MineStar Command automated control AV platform, which the company has also adapted to work with the Komatsu (see above) 930E dump truck.

In the first half of 2020, Caterpillar announced the 276 autonomous haul trucks it had delivered since 2013 had moved more than two billion tonnes of material and that the company’s Command-driven trucks had driven 72.4 million kilometers with no lost-time injuries reported. In May 2020, Caterpillar said its 794 AC-electric hauling truck would be able to function autonomously later in the year.

Hitachi and Honda

Like Caterpillar (see above), Japan’s Hitachi Construction Machinery (HCM) began using AHS trucks in 2013. Hitachi first remotely automated its AC-3 range of dump trucks using electric steering modules inserted between their valves and steering wheels. HCM uses fleet management systems (FMS) from its Wenco International Mining Systems subsidiary for AHS monitoring and dispatching. Hitachi also uses a big-data-driven service solution called ConSite to sense, monitor, and predict failures for HCM vehicles.

In 2018, HCM laid out a vision for an information communications technology (ICT)-integrated open-autonomy standard for the construction industry based on innovation, cloud-based interoperability, and an ecosystem of partner solution links. The internal components of this standard are being delivered under a technology umbrella branded One Hitachi. Already, this vision is bearing fruit in the form of Solution Linkage Assist for the firm’s ZX200X-6 ICT hydraulic excavator, which can automate control of its boom, arm, and bucket for highly efficient and location-accurate excavation.

In May 2020, HCM announced it was working with Malvern, Pennsylvania-based Rajant Corporation to enable vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications between its manned and unmanned vehicles.

At the 2018 Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Japan’s Honda debuted the firm’s prototype modular, robotic, all-terrain 4WD Autonomous Work Vehicle (AWV) chassis, which features a rail-based system to mount work tools, load-carrying devices, and/or accessories. The AWV can be programmed to either follow another vehicle or to drive along a predetermined route. A variety of developers showed off disparate application-specific (including construction-related) uses of the AWV alongside Honda at the 2019 CES. Honda continues to seek partners for development of the AWV for specific markets and usage scenarios.

Kobelco and Doosan

Kobe, Japan-based Kobelco produces hydraulic excavators, wheel loaders, demolition machines, and road-building equipment. As of early 2019, the company was working on K-Dive, a way to operate its vehicles from geographically remote locations. The hardware/software K-Dive system uses multiple screens and a realistic vibrating seat to simulate the cab of a Kobelco vehicle for an operator to maneuver it. Field testing of the K-Dive is scheduled to take place throughout 2020, with commercialization being discussed for 2025. For now, select Kobelco excavators work with the Earthworks Control Platform from Trimble (see below).

In November 2019, the Infracore construction vehicle division of South Korean conglomerate Doosan demonstrated its AI-enhanced Concept-X holistic control solution for construction sites. Concept-X is designed to survey worksite topographies with drones, establish operational plans, and operate construction equipment—including wheel loaders and excavators—all without human intervention. The aim of Concept-X is to leave painstaking, dangerous onsite work to equipment, and free up human personnel to concentrate on management and analysis tasks. Doosan aims to commercialize Concept-X as a whole by 2025, with various components of the system being made available to the market as they’re ready.

Built Robotics and Trimble

Based in San Francisco, aforementioned construction AV platform maker Built Robotics does not produce any construction vehicles itself, but rather, sells aftermarket AI-integrated automation upgrades for converting vehicles from construction-market OEMs. The company has USD$100 million in business commitments from leading construction firms in the residential building and energy/utility sectors. In May 2019, Built Robotics announced it would be partnering with construction-vehicle rental firm Sunstate to provide autonomous construction equipment for Sunstate’s customers.

Elsewhere in the U.S., Sunnyvale, California-based Trimble makes machine-control solutions for cranes, dredgers, compactors, pavers, bulldozers, excavators, graders, scrapers, and wheel loaders. Just one of the tools the company offers is augmented-reality (AR) Earthworks displays for excavators that overlay computer-generated 3D CAD-model imagery over real-world terrain so that operators can keep excavators’ claws precisely aligned.

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