Could Your Contracting Business Use Self-Driving Vehicles on the Jobsite

With a lot of focus on self-driving cars, you knew it was coming. Self-driving vehicles have reached the construction site. The innovation of semi-autonomous construction equipment seems like a futuristic answer to the construction labor shortage, but it’s actually available right now through several companies. Here’s what has been happening in the industry and how self-driving equipment might work with your contracting business in the coming years.

Self-Driving Vehicles in Construction
While manufacturers of self-driving cars on the road are still working out the quirks of regular interaction with humans, this technology has already been in use for years in a field adjacent to construction: mining. For example, international mining company Rio Tinto has been using driverless dump trucks to move iron ore at one of its sites in Australia. These machines feature sensors that allow a professional to monitor their operation and efficiency from a remote location.

Since 2013, a few well-known brands of construction equipment have been developing lines of semi-autonomous or autonomous equipment. These brands include Komatsu, Cat and John Deere. Many of their products are aimed at the mining industry, especially for repetitive tasks. However, it is not a leap to adapt this equipment for use in construction, so development is starting to happen in this field, too.

Automation Retrofits
This is all very exciting, but you may wonder what happens to all the existing equipment that is built based on the use of an operator working hands-on with or inside the machine. After all, if you buy a piece of equipment that’s intended to last for decades, you aren’t going to buy a new one a few years later.

A few companies realized that there is a serious gap between current products and the market only a few years ago. They have created retrofit kits that customers can buy and have installed to any make or model within a certain set of machines, like bulldozers, excavators and more. Since one of the companies is based in San Francisco, you may be able to rent one to test it out.

Benefits of Construction Automation
There are basically two goals that propel the construction automation movement forward: efficiency and safety. When employees can watch the work being done from another location, they may be able to monitor more vehicles at the same time. This limits the number of workers needed for a particular project. For specialized fields in which contractors and property owners find it difficult, if not impossible, to hire someone trained for the job, this could solve problems with timing and budget.

Assuming that the equipment works as designed, it’s also safer for workers. Proponents claim that having a worker removed from the actual equipment means that they can supervise the work from a position of safety. It lowers the number of people working in or around the equipment, reducing the likelihood of injury.

Potential Disadvantages of Self-Driving Construction Vehicles
Of course, there are always reasons to be a little wary of new innovations. Drones are wonderfully useful for construction, but they can wreak havoc in airspace. When you hire someone to operate a machine, you rely on their sight and experience to know where to go and what to do. With autonomous equipment, you’re relying on the computer not to go outside of its location or cause damage to existing structures. If you decide to jump in with both feet, you might want to do some extra research on the particular products available. That way, you can have a chance to verify that the manufacturer has solved most of the possible problems during development and testing.

There’s no denying that automation is coming for the construction industry. In some aspects, it’s already here. If you invest some time, you can figure out how it could work with your contracting business.