National Geographic
National Geographic 29 Oct 2020

Pilot Program

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"We need to work fast, and we need the best." In order to try and win the Space Race, the U.S. needed pilots who were capable, brave, and willing to risk it all in the name of progress. This is their story. The Right Stuff is now streaming on Disney+.


There's a lot of buzz around self-driving cars, but autonomous-driving technology could revolutionize a different industry first — construction. That industry hasn't changed much over the last several decades, according to some experts, making it an ideal candidate for automation.

"The way we build today is largely unchanged from the way we used to build 50 years ago," said Gaurav Kikani, vice president of Built Robotics. "Within two years, I think we're really going to turn the corner, and you're going to see an explosion of robotics being used on construction sites."

The industry is also faced with a labor shortage that the Covid-19 pandemic has further complicated.

"Covid is making people step back and say, ‘hey, the way we've been doing things for a long time is just not sustainable,'" said Kevin Albert, founder and CEO of Canvas. "It is just a wake-up call for the industry."

Canvas is one of several companies working on autonomous construction technology. Big players like Caterpillar and Komatsu, and start-ups like SafeAI and Built Robotics, see value in using autonomous machines to accelerate construction projects.

The mining industry was one of the first to employ the use of self-driving tech. Caterpillar began its first autonomy program more than 30 years ago. The company now has the largest fleet of autonomous haul trucks. Caterpillar says it's hauled 2 billion metric tons in just over six years.

Built Robotics is a San Francisco-based start-up founded by an ex-Google engineer that already has machinery out in the field. It's automated several pieces of equipment, such as bulldozers and excavators.

"You can now collapse your construction timeline so you can knock out work overnight so that it's ready for your human workers in the morning to speed them along," Kikani said.

SafeAI is another Silicon Valley start-up. It recently teamed up with Obayashi for a pilot program. It's been retrofitting equipment like dump trucks, bulldozers and loaders.

Robots are also helping inside. San Francisco-based Canvas created an autonomous machine for finishing drywall and has worked on projects like the San Francisco International Airport and Chase Arena. Humans work alongside its robotic system.

"Drywall is very hard work on the body," Albert said. "And we've seen that 1 out of every 4 workers has to end their career early because of injuries. This will create longer careers for people and also enable people to join the trades that haven't had access before."

The construction industry is one of the largest sectors in the global economy, with about $10 trillion spent each year. That spending accounts for 13% of the world's GDP, even though the sector's annual productivity growth has only increased 1% over the past 20 years. According to McKinsey & Co., $1.6 trillion of additional value could be created through higher productivity, and autonomy would help the industry achieve that.
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