The future of heavy equipment was on display at a construction site on the Billings West End Wednesday, but something was missing: an operator.
At the invitation of Billings-based CMG Construction, Built Robotics, a two-year-old San Francisco Bay Area firm that’s developing autonomous construction equipment, showed off Mary Anne, a self-driving skidsteer that was methodically removing top soil from the future home of The Den Bar and Casino near the corner of Grand Avenue and 54th Street West.
Noah Ready-Campbell, founder, CEO and engineer for Built Robotics, was working at Google in 2010 when the company announced it would be developing self-driving cars. Why not apply that technology to heavy equipment that performs repetitive and often dangerous jobs requiring operators who are paid up to $30 per hour?
Even at those above-average wages, said CMG Construction’s Ed Walker, skilled operators are increasingly hard to find and hire.
Built Robotics, which now has 12 employees, raised $15 million and talked to contractors to discover what kind of construction work could most readily be accomplished by autonomous equipment. The skidsteer on display Wednesday showed off one such job — preparing a site for construction.
Walker called the skidsteer “the Swiss army knife of heavy equipment,” because it’s versatile and relatively compact.
Ready-Campbell showed videos of other heavy equipment tasks that can be accomplished without an operator. In one, a driverless pallet fork removes 50,000 pallets stacked with solar panels and readies them for distribution.
LIDAR, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, guides the autonomous equipment, but it’s only the first line of safety, Ready-Campbell explained. The site had a geofence erected, and Mary Anne cannot venture beyond that invisible fence. Three Built Robotics engineers provided the last line of defense, using laptops to stay in communication with the equipment.
CMG Construction’s Taj Mukadam compared the development of autonomous construction equipment to another significant breakthrough — the day in 1903 when Wilbur and Orville Wright first flew their airplane on the beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
“That was a pivotal event in aviation technology,” Mukadam said, “and this is a special day in the construction community.”
“We asked them how many were interested in a career in construction, and not too many hands went up,” Mukadam said. “Hopefully, after the presentation, we’ll see a few more.”
“Those kids asked a lot of questions I couldn’t begin to answer,” Mukadam said with a laugh. “I was glad Noah was here.”
Ready-Campbell said the company hasn’t yet set prices for selling the new technology. But within a few years, he expects the cost to be 10-20 percent beneath the cost of traditional heavy equipment, when operator pay is figured in.
“It won’t replace every job that requires a skilled operator,” he said, “but for some tasks it’s useful.”