New robots or new brains for machines, heavy equipment’s evolution

New robots or new brains for machines, evolution of heavy equipment

There are two ways to add autonomy to heavy construction equipment: build a brand new digging robot from the ground up or build new brains for your existing excavators. San Francisco-based Build Robotics is going the aftermarket route with Exosystem, a computer brain that integrates with common excavators to provide autonomy for repetitive trenching tasks.

“Designing a robot from scratch only makes sense when there is no machine that actually does the job, and the experts who make great machines actually do,” says Erol Ahmed, Director of Communications at Build Robotics. “We decided to follow a path whereby we could install independent controls on any modern 15- to 50-ton excavator from a leading manufacturer.”

The Exosystem consists of a liquid-cooled computer housed within an all-weather brainbox, proximity radar, 360-degree cameras and GPS. Contractors can rent stand-alone Exosystem upgrades and install them on their rigs, or they can rent excavators already upgraded by Built Robotics.

“You can make savings very quickly,” says Ahmed. “On a foot-by-foot basis, autonomous operation is usually cheaper than manual operation. But it is better to use it for a longer period of time to achieve all the productivity benefits of having automation.”

He says that boring, dirty, and dangerous repetitive tasks that require precision are usually where autonomy makes the most sense. The point is not to replace workers but to remedy labor shortages and backlogs by eliminating the kind of work that humans do not really enjoy.

“Currently, we are focusing on independent trenching but are pursuing opportunities in roadworks, ditching, material handling, and demolition,” he says.

Courtesy built robots

He notes that customers have used robotic excavators on a wide range of trenching projects from utility infrastructure to data centers and clean energy infrastructure, including solar and wind power.

Exosystem-equipped rigs are leased for a minimum of three months, during which time contractors can experience what the company calls a “low-risk, low-cost” exposure to automation.

Contractors who go the installation route themselves can integrate a rental system with their earthmoving machinery within a few hours, Ahmed says. The main unit is attached to the tail of the excavator, while the cameras and sensors are connected via magnetic connectors and U-shaped clamps.

“People often think of installing a device that will move the steering wheel or hydraulic control,” he says. “But the fact is that the steering wheel does not make the car turn directly. It sends an electronic signal to a computer that makes that happen. The Exosystem provides its electronic signals by connecting to the steering and hydraulics.”

All manual control options are retained, so that a human operator can still stand behind the independent excavator controls at any time and operate it manually.

Programming the excavator’s brain for autonomous action begins with software to create a geofence that defines the extent of the task.

“The robot won’t work outside of that area,” Ahmed says. Then it loads GPS points that determine the course of the trench. You’ll also direct him how deep and wide to dig the trench and where you want to deposit the loot piles. Press the start button and the robotic excavator will start digging.”

The Exosystem includes a comprehensive security system that starts with a physical barrier to keep people away from the work area. If the on-board camera senses an obstruction, playback will be paused until it is safe to resume work. Contractors can check in with the independent excavator at any time and look through its eyes to monitor progress and see what you’re seeing. They also have access to wired and remote emergency stop systems.

Guardian, a remote monitoring service operated by Built Robotics, monitors all work activities and notifies the contractor of any malfunctions or special attention required by the system. So far, the company has not reported any safety incidents related to the robot… nor have it reported cases of excavators showing the situation.

“Our robots are harmless, docile and obedient,” says Ahmed.

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