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The autonomous site of the future: How contractors can benefit from the rise of technology

By Troy Dahlin

It’s no surprise that the world has been marching towards an autonomous future. Autonomous functions are found today on the roads, at retail locations, and on the jobsite.

For years, humans and machines have had an increasing number of seamless interactions. Over time, the shift has happened, with robots, machinery, and equipment working hand in hand with humans.

While cities launching driverless shuttle buses often capture the headlines, an even bigger transformation is taking place on the jobsite.

The industry is coping with a lingering shortage of skilled labor and other pressures. The trend is likely to continue and compound moving forward, and a more automated jobsite has emerged as a solution to help contractors mitigate and rise above these challenges.

These changing environments require technology to move automation to autonomy. Construction is sitting at the cusp of those changes, and contractors have a unique opportunity to benefit from it.

The heavy construction landscape faces enormous challenges today. Companies continue to have a challenge finding skilled labor, and when coupled with margin pressures such as the varying and fluctuating cost of materials, managing a jobsite is as hard as ever.

According to The Civil Quarterly (TCQ) from Dodge Data & Analytics, the use of technology on-site is an area of increased interest to many contractors.

The wider use of on-site technology is important because of its positive impact on productivity, which is the top benefit contractors expect from using these technologies. As workforce worries grow, the need for greater productivity from existing workers will continue to grow in importance.


Intelligence is driving the autonomous revolution

The ability to move toward complete autonomy on the jobsite is based on shared information. There’s a layer of intelligence throughout the deployment of autonomous solutions that drives these seamless interactions.

Intelligence — and the decision-making it empowers — is built on the collection of data and real-time information. It coordinates people, processes and assets to be deployed in the most efficient and effective ways.

Everyone on the jobsite today must have the ability to tap into real-time data to understand the intricacies of a project. It allows teams to adapt to jobsite conditions in real-time and empowers teams to make rapid decisions when needed.

There’s a fusion between what type of intelligence went into the design for scheduling tasks and planning for the end of the project’s life. Machines no longer move dirt between Point A to Point B; they may need to change course to handle an unexpected change on site.

Consider, for example, a change in task priority or a delay in the delivery of material needed for the project. The team can use this real-time intelligence to automatically re-task equipment to complete tasks in a different order, allowing a project to progress rather than come to a standstill.

Additionally, it opens up a feedback loop – getting to a continuous feedback process to see what’s happening with designers and operators based on real-time dynamic information on what’s happening on the job site. Real-time feedback is the holy grail of site management.


Make the jobsite safer

One of the immediate needs on the job site that can be addressed today is safety. Safety technology, such as collision avoidance and warning systems, is proven and cost-effective already. It also is an enabling building block to upgrade to full autonomy.

Heavy construction regularly ranks in the top three industries worldwide for serious injuries and fatalities. Heavy traffic, large equipment, poor visibility and blind spots all create the potential for accidents on-site and, when combined, make sites potentially dangerous places.

Providing better visibility, greater feedback to operators and field personnel minimizes the risk of injuries, near-misses and site shut-downs. For construction sites, safety awareness is a sound investment, ensuring that everyone gets home safely.

Jobsite accidents are expensive, from the damages themselves to the time a jobsite is shuttered to the personal and financial toll. The deployment of technology that combines a collision avoidance system with alerts is a smart investment that will pay dividends for a company.


How do we get to a fully autonomous worksite?

While most companies say they are ready for the fully autonomous worksite, there are some barriers to entry.

In recent years, the technology to enable the fully autonomous worksite has made significant strides, but it isn’t yet mature enough or often cost-prohibitive. Like all fundamental shifts within an industry, this too will take time.

There is also a reskilling and deploying necessary that may require organizations to reskill operators from a machine into an office away from the jobsite with teleoperated controls to manage the equipment and jobs. Increased interaction with collaborative, semi and fully automated machines will allow for more complex work.

However, the move to the fully autonomous worksite can help minimize the impact of the ongoing labor shortage. It helps with higher utilization because a smaller team can cover tasks across more jobsites simultaneously.


Full autonomy extends deeper

The idea of moving to a fully autonomous jobsite extends beyond the jobsite itself and into every aspect of a contractor’s operations. This fusion of the digital and physical worlds with intelligence touches every step in the life of a heavy construction project.

Estimating, bidding, design, planning, construction and handover will feed each other simultaneously and dynamically, ensuring the completion of a job on-spec, in-budget and with zero harm.

Amid the discussion of technology and potential real-world applications, it’s easy to get lost in the pie-in-the-sky predictions. But autonomy on the jobsite is no longer a theoretical possibility; it’s taking place, and it’s already proven itself.

The revolution is happening. Why not join in and reap its benefits?

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