While there has been much hype around self-driving cars over the last few years, the truth is that regulatory and technology challenges will likely postpone their commercial adoption until the early part of the next decade. Use of autonomous vehicles in the construction industry however isn’t likely to face quite the same level of restriction and looks set for mainstream adoption in the immediate to short term.
In 2018, we are seeing the first commercial applications of this technology with San Francisco based, Built Robotics having launched their autonomous track loader (ATL) in October 2017. In addition, Caterpillar has already deployed more than 100 autonomous haul trucks to mines across the world.
By using a combination of LIDAR sensors, inertial measurement units (IMUs) and global positioning system (GPS) technology, ATLs and other autonomous vehicles on construction sites are able to carry out many simple but time-consuming or dangerous tasks like foundation hole digging.
Initially, ATLs and other autonomous vehicles will be used to carry out relatively simple tasks, with human intervention needed for more complex work like excavating around buried utility lines or truck loading. However, as the capabilities of the technology expand, the need for human intervention is likely to be reduced.
The use of autonomous vehicles on construction projects not only addresses the skills shortage in the industry, there are also many clear benefits for companies including:
As with any new technology, autonomous vehicles face their fair share of challenges, with the key concern being cybersecurity. If governments and regulators believe that autonomous equipment is not safeguarded from hacking, they could impose heavy restrictions or even ban the technology outright. For this reason, it is likely that the use of autonomous vehicles in the construction industry will be accompanied by security technology designed to protect data and control from hacking or malicious aims. This will add a barrier to entry for most companies due to the increased costs and complexity of integrating both technologies. However it is likely that startups and companies working on the respective technologies will merge or work more closely together in the short term to deliver a more accessible solution to the industry. In comparison to the regulatory challenges that self-driving road vehicles face, these issues seem more straightforward to overcome.
An industry that has been comparatively slow to adopt new technology, the construction sector is already leading the way with autonomous vehicles. Still in their infancy and being trialled more by larger companies at this early stage, we are expecting to see this technology gain mainstream adoption very soon, despite the regulatory and security challenges that lie ahead.