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Will Automation Ever Take Off in Construction?

First published in the August 2019 issue of Quarry Management

Increasing automation is met with excitement and fear in equal measure, but the benefits for mankind are enormous, says Professor Paul Newman, co-founder of autonomous vehicle software company Oxbotica. 

As well as being a co-founder of Oxbotica, the autonomous vehicle software company, Professor Newman is director of the Oxford Robotics Institute, BP Professor of Information Engineering at the University of Oxford, and an inventor of techniques that allow machines to know where they are, what surrounds them and what they should do next. Speaking here on behalf of Volvo CE, he explains what automation might mean in terms of construction equipment.

What is driving the urge to automate functions in construction equipment? 

It is fundamentally about supercharging humans. It is about humans doing more because machines can do more – because of the way they operate.

What needs to happen to make this possible? 

The way machines and vehicles operate is already changing, but for full autonomy we need to trust machines to be able to operate safely and effectively by themselves, with no dependence on infrastructure, no dependence on any external systems, no beacons, no cables, no markers, no white lines, no dependency on roads, not even on GPS. When this is achieved all machines can work better for us.

What technology is driving increased mobile machine autonomy?

It is the software. Sensors are important and there is a lot of interesting sensor technology coming through, but the golden stuff is the algorithms. The way in which machines can understand space, the structure of space, the work space; and how things are moving, what is in them, and the ability to take various sensor streams and for the machine to say: ‘Aha! I know where I am, what’s around me, and what I should do next’ – these are the three pillars of autonomy and get answered by software and algorithms.

Will these systems allow machines to be intelligent and self-learning?

Of course. It would be hard to do it any other way. Machines can learn, they have the optimization, the estimation and the algorithmic ability to operate at high speeds and in the real world. The ability to process streams of data from multiple sensors and think about redundancy and safety all at the same time. That is the greatest thrill of working in this area – getting robots and machines to work out in the wild, in the mud, in the rain and in the glaring sun.

When will we have autonomous construction machines? 

That is not such a simple question to answer. We are a long way away from being able to produce a machine that can work in all places, at all times and in all applications, but for clearly understood and defined applications, we are able to install, train-up and deliver machines today.

Will autonomous machines be safer? 

Safety could be the number one advantage of autonomous machines. Today, one of the highest causes of construction deaths is people being struck by construction equipment. That is not okay, so we can create ‘guardian angel’ features that work in co-operation with human operators and simply say: ‘I’m just not going to let you hit anyone’.

Will there be no accidents at all with autonomous machines?

In all technology, in all environments, accidents happen, and they are awful. With autonomous machines there should be very few of them, but we should admit that there will be some accidents. They will not be the kind of accidents that happen if a human was in control. Around 80% of accidents on the road are caused by failings that computers never have. Accidents are often caused by boredom and distraction. Autonomy can cut those sorts of accidents to zero. Computers have an inhuman ability to concentrate – they never get bored.

But the knockout blow for this technology is learning. Human operators take a long time, years even, to become expert in driving their machines. But construction vehicles can be programmed ahead of their first day on site with all the data and learnings of all other machines that preceded them, from all around the world, from every accident that has ever been recorded, everywhere. So, an accident in Kuala Lumpur in the morning really should reduce the chances of the same accident happening in London that afternoon.

What is the relationship between autonomy and connectivity? 

Autonomous machines should be able to operate independent of anything external. That is not to say, however, that if you do have connectivity you should not use it. It is nice to have, but the point is that you should not need it in order to succeed.

Can autonomous machines deliver greater productivity?

The answer, unequivocally, is yes. Autonomy will allow an operator to drive multiple machines rather than just one at a time. That is what gets talked about most, but that is not all. There are lots of second-order advantages that do not get talked about. Potholes, for example, in off-road applications can cause all kinds of trouble. But the machine knows they are coming, so it moves slowly to the side, which means the tyres last longer. The controlled acceleration and deceleration of these vehicles massively reduces fuel costs. Autonomous machines can work in complete darkness. Vehicles that are not being dispatched can turn themselves off. As these vehicles move around the site, they are perceiving their world, but at the same time they are doing full-scale asset monitoring of the facility.

Can autonomous machines have the same skill level as human operators? 

There are certain tasks that are, for the moment, beyond what machines can do. Take, for instance, a very skilled excavator operator and the precise and delicate way they can control the bucket. It is extraordinary – a celebration of everything it is to have a human cortex. But actually, that same operator gets asked to do dreary and repetitive tasks – what a waste of that super brain. We might say there are things that we would want humans to do and others that a machine can do ceaselessly in the middle of the night in the dark. It is about empowering the genius of the human brain by taking away the monotonous tasks.

What about job losses from machines no longer needing operators? 

In the 1970s people feared that computers were going to take everybody’s job. Now look at all the jobs computers have created – we have got the best employment ever. Jobs will change and new roles will be created gradually over time, but there will not be a big-bang changeover. In construction and mining, we will have whole crews of people who are upskilled to look after the autonomous machines.

Can anything stop the rise of the robots? 

Machines and humans will work together for some time to come. There are places where machines will think: ‘This is really tricky – I need you human’, and the human operator will say: ‘I’ve got it’. It will be a long time before anything comes near to the extraordinary skill of a human being, but then there are some roles that are simple and repetitive worksite tasks that autonomous systems can do better and more safely. 

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