Interest In This Autonomous Construction Tech Has Doubled Since March
The construction industry was already suffering from a labor shortage when the coronavirus pandemic struck. Within one of the least-digitized industries in the U.S., many contractors have seen timelines extend as labor has become harder to find.
Over the past two years, San Francisco-based Built Robotics has deployed an artificial intelligence guidance system that may help insulate construction firms from further business disruption. The system can be retrofitted to existing machinery, such as excavators and bulldozers, and allows machines to work without a human operator.
Potential customer interest in the technology has doubled since March, Built Robotics Director of Communications Erol Ahmed told Bisnow. Prior to the pandemic, customer interest was more focused on researching the capabilities of that technology. Now they want to use it.
“The shift has been interesting in that it's kind of similar to grocery delivery. The technology was valued and appreciated before COVID hit. And people were thinking about it as, OK, this is something I need to get on. I have a couple years to think about it, integrate it,” Ahmed said.
“But with the change in everything, people are realizing that not only do I need to invest in these new technologies, but a lot of our customers are like, OK, we need more diversity in continuity plans.”
While interest has doubled, the customer base for the technology still remains small as Built Robotics typically partners with major construction companies. Those firms have the infrastructure, support and internal innovation teams to dedicate to implementing the technology.
“Doubling isn't like going from 1,000 to 2,000, it's going from maybe 10 to 20, which is still significant. But it's sort of a doubling. And they're more serious conversations,” Ahmed said.
Some of that growing interest was already in the works prior to the pandemic. In a case of fortunate timing, Built Robotics showcased its work at the CONEXPO-CON event in Las Vegas during the first half of March, right before stay-at-home orders swept the country.
“[Customer interest] leans more heavily towards the general conversations we usually get. I think we're just seeing them more rapidly. Maybe people are subconsciously contacting us more frequently because of what's going on in the world,” Ahmed said.
Wildfires and other natural disasters also pose a growing threat to project timelines and construction workers. With that in mind, construction companies are getting more serious about creating a more diverse portfolio of solutions to fall back on. That includes fully autonomous work, monitoring options and new ways to ensure worker safety.
The International Union of Operating Engineers and Built Robotics entered a multiyear partnership this year to establish a training program, the two organizations announced at CONEXPO-CON. The program will prepare IUOE members to oversee and manage robotic equipment, as well as work alongside autonomously operating vehicles.
“A lot of these future technologies all of a sudden have become today technologies, if you like,” Ahmed said.
According to the company, Built Robotics’ technology is the first product of its kind to be commercially available to the construction industry. The company conducted a number of small-scale pilot projects in 2018, and publicly announced partnerships with Mortenson and Independent Construction in 2019.
With demand rising faster than expected in 2020, Built Robotics is now working to figure out how to meet that demand and is aiming to eventually offer the technology to customers of any size.
“We're out commercially, but now it's a question of scalability. And I would say we have internally adjusted our own benchmarks and milestones for next year to be a lot more aggressive,” Ahmed said.
Part of that scalability means hiring more people. To help with the deployment of more machines, Built Robotics is slowly starting to expand its field team. That team is involved in the installation of the AI technology on job sites, as well as performing customer training.
There are other companies performing research and development in the space, including Cyngn and Fastbrick Robotics. Caterpillar, known for a wide range of construction and mining equipment, already has remote-control technology built into some of its products and is continuing to conduct research into autonomous features.
Robotics can be complicated to introduce on a job site, but Ahmed said that ultimately, more companies are now interested in integrating that technology.
“Sometimes you do need an outside force to put some fire underneath people to get them moving,” Ahmed said.