Thursday, January 22, 2015

Construction: Here Come the Autonomous Bulldozers and 3-D Mapping Drones

From the Wall Street Journal:

Drones’ Next Job: Construction Work
Construction-equipment maker Komatsu Ltd. has plans to solve a potential shortage of construction workers in Japan: Let drones and driverless bulldozers do part of the work.

Tokyo-based Komatsu said Tuesday it planned to use unmanned aircraft, bulldozers and excavators to automate much of the early foundation work on construction sites.

Under Komatsu’s plans, U.S.-made drones would scan job sites from the air and send images to computers to build three-dimensional models of the terrain. Komatsu’s unmanned bulldozers and excavators would then use those models to carry out design plans, digging holes and moving earth.

The drones, made by San Francisco startup Skycatch Inc., and construction equipment would move along largely preprogrammed routes. The goal is to automate the construction site, leaving humans to program the machines and then push a button to send them to work.

Human operators also would monitor progress and can jump in to take control of a machine if necessary. 
Komatsu plans to lease and operate the devices for customers—a departure from its core business of selling heavy machinery. The program, dubbed Smart Construction, will begin next month in Japan.

Akinori Onodera, president of the Komatsu unit overseeing Smart Construction, said Japan’s aging workforce is leading to a shortage of construction employees there. Automating job sites will help mitigate any shortage, he said, which is crucial as work ramps up on thousands of construction projects, including many tied to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

“We have to improve productivity,” Mr. Onodera said.

Mr. Onodera said Komatsu has been working on automating its machinery for years, but a lack of terrain data that was accurate and quickly available made it difficult to put the machines into practice....MORE