Automation will improve safety, productivity and efficiency in the construction industry, so why aren’t we seeing more of it yet? Uwe Müller, Program Manager Commercial Pilots at Volvo Construction Equipment, explains what direction the industry is heading in and what needs to happen before fully autonomous machines become the norm.
It’s a fact that autonomous machines will increase safety in hazardous working environments and eliminate the possibility of accidents caused by human error. They will also perform repetitive tasks more efficiently and precisely than a human operator and because machines will be operated in the most efficient way, customers will benefit from improved performance, productivity, fuel efficiency, and durability. In the future we could also potentially have one operator for several machines, increasing productivity and further decreasing costs. But for fully autonomous construction equipment to become the norm, we’ll need to see acceptance and trust in the technology, a reduction in cost, an increase in the pace of technological change and regulatory reform.
Before we see an influx of fully autonomous machines on the market, we will see machines fitted with systems that are less dependent on operator skills, ones that support operators with guidance or control primary functions. For example, Volvo Co-Pilot and its range of intelligent assist functionalities: Load Assist, Dig Assist, Compact Assist, Haul Assist and Pave Assist, which helps operators deliver higher quality outcomes, in less time and with less effort. This is still automation, it’s just on a different level to the prototype HX2 autonomous, battery-electric load carriers we were using in Volvo Construction Equipment’s (Volvo CE’s) Electric Site project.
Uwe Müller at the Electric Site in Sweden
The future operator
While the job of an operator will change with automation, some tasks are so complex and unpredictable that the operator needs to feel what’s happening, and in those cases, we will always need operators controlling the machines from inside the cab. But as machine autonomy increases, the operator will generally act more in a supervisory capacity. This will provide safer, less stressful and more interesting work for operators, with perhaps several machines being controlled remotely by one operator. In many areas of the world, such as the US, there is a shortage of skilled operators. And there are also plenty of cases where job sites are so remote, like in Australia, that they have to fly operators in and build the infrastructure they need to live while working there. Automation would provide a solution to both of these problems.
What’s next for automation
I believe that the construction industry is ready for change, but to what extent is the real question. Some of our customers at Volvo CE would be happy to use autonomous machines today, but others want to wait until the technology is more mature. This is why we are running pilot studies with our customers, like our Electric Site research project with Skanska. Customers want to be sure that any new machines are safe, reliable, durable and productive. Volvo CE has been working on autonomous machine research for more than a decade. But until now, it has been difficult to build a compelling business case for automated construction equipment because the technology that sits behind it is expensive. However, as costs are starting to fall and the demand for increased efficiency, safety and productivity continues, automation is becoming an attractive and viable option.
Volvo CE currently has no confirmed plans for industrialization of an autonomous machine at this stage. However, I can say that our research projects feed our future product development plans, so you can expect to see elements of our concept machines influencing Volvo CE’s future offering.