Automation is picking up the pace in the construction industry with a newly announced partnership to bring autonomous vehicles to the equipment rental market.
Built Robotics, a San Francisco-based developer of autonomous equipment, and Sunstate Equipment Co. of Phoenix, which rents out tools and equipment across the U.S., announced their collaboration last week.
Built’s autonomous upgrade kits can pair with any make and model of construction equipment, the company said, to allow the machine to operate autonomously with worker supervision.
The company so far has developed their own autonomous skid steers, compact track loaders, excavators, bulldozers and more. Sunstate will retrofit select equipment from its fleet using Built's technology kits.
Operators use Built’s software to program a machine’s tasks, such as where dirt should be moved, and contain the machine within a geofence so that it doesn’t veer off the grid, and Built's kits include a number of other safety features as well. A combination of camera and LiDAR sensors allow the machine to identify and avoid pedestrians, vehicles and other obstacles on the jobsite, the firms said. Operators can also override the machine at any time with hardwired and wireless emergency stop buttons.
Built says the partnership will be key in getting its technology to more users across the industry.
“By enabling customers to rent Built-upgraded equipment from Sunstate, we reduce the barrier to trying this technology out, and make it more approachable for contractors and operators around the country,” said CEO Noah Ready-Campbell in the announcement.
The startup is a serious contender in the autonomous equipment game, holding its own against competitors like Caterpillar, John Deere and Komatsu, helped by backing from Sumitomo Corp. of Americas (Sunstate’s parent company) and its venture arm, Presidio Ventures. Sumitomo said it hopes that by expanding Built’s reach, it can alleviate some of the pressures of finding skilled vehicle operators.
Komatsu was the first to release a bulldozer with fully automatic blade control in 2013. Cat has primarily honed its technology to the mining industry, where trucks carry out repetitive tasks on the same track, growing its fleet from six to more than 150 between 2013 and 2018. Some of its new dozers, wheel loaders and skid steer loaders can come with remote or line-of-sight controls. John Deere, which has also developed immersive heavy equipment simulators for operator training, is likewise in the mix of firms moving from semi-autonomous to fully autonomous offerings.
These companies may face bigger hurdles to industry acceptance than is seen with other cutting-edge jobsite technologies. Besides the usual reservations about human workers being displaced by robots, a recent survey from Volvo Construction Equipment — another heavy hitter in automation — found that construction professionals were more wary of the safety risks. While 31% of respondents feared they would be replaced by artificial intelligence and robotics, almost half (46%) said that the safety risks worried them. Built and other equipment developers may need to steer consumers’ attention toward the layers of safety controls underlying their autonomous products.