The International Union of Operating Engineers has plenty of big toys at its training center in Crosby, Texas, but one that began rolling across the 265-acre campus last week is an oddity. The modified Caterpillar 336 excavator can use onboard computers and sensors to perform by itself some of the work the center trains human operators to do, such as digging trenches for gas pipelines or wind turbine foundations.
The IUOE’s new robotic excavator is the result of an unusual partnership with Built Robotics, a San Francisco startup that sells a box that can enable a backhoe or bulldozer to pilot itself for some tasks. It contains a high-powered computer, motion and angle sensors, and a laser scanner called a lidar commonly used in self-driving cars.
Although Built’s product is designed to remove workers from the cab of construction equipment, IUOE’s director of construction training, Chris Treml, says the union wants to train its members to work with the technology. “Operating engineers are always on the cutting edge of technology,” he says.
The IUOE was founded in 1896 and its logo features a steam gauge with the needle at 420 pounds per square inch, the operating pressure of some steam engines. Its training center teaches members to use remotely operated robotic equipment such as drones and mini-cranes, as well as fine-grade GPS equipment to guide construction vehicles to grade dirt at precise angles.
Treml says members now need to get familiar with autonomous construction equipment, because it too is set to become a standard part of the industry. “The last thing I want to see is people losing their jobs,” he says. “But this is something that’s out there and it’s going to be part of our industry, and so we want to be a part of it.” Built plans to help IUOE expand its fleet of autonomous vehicles over the coming year.
Another reason for construction workers to be collegial toward robots is that there’s plenty of work to go around amid an industry-wide shortage of workers. The nonprofit National Center for Construction Education and Research says heavy equipment operators are among the most sought after. Many current operators are close to retirement age, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that such jobs will grow 10 percent between 2018 and 2028, twice the rate for all occupations.
Other unions have not welcomed automation. In 2017 the Teamsters helped convince the Senate to exclude autonomous trucks from draft legislation on self-driving vehicles. That was a setback for companies working on the technology, such as Alphabet, because a regulatory vacuum would delay commercial deployment. The legislation ultimately foundered; a new draft, yet to be introduced, also excludes large trucks.
Vehicles with Built’s equipment don’t need regulatory approval if they work off public roads. They’re already at work in the US, primarily on energy projects, digging foundations for wind turbines or oil and gas pipeline trenches.
After workers specify the GPS coordinates of the ends of a pipeline trench, they can leave the rest to the excavator, which will drive itself to the starting point and dig thousands of feet in a day. One worker—not necessarily an excavation specialist—needs to stay on hand in case of problems.
Built’s CEO and founder Noah Ready-Campbell said unions were wary when his company’s tech first appeared at construction sites. “We got a lot of questions early on about whether these robots are here to steal jobs,” he says. “The answer is no. The computers are not smart enough, but they can free up operators to do the more challenging and valuable work,” such as more complex excavations. Suspicions typically evaporate fast once workers see how the technology can help make sites more efficient, he says.
Treml of IUOE says although the technology is improving, it can help only with certain tasks, not the most valuable and complex work and planning. “You still need to have that human touch,” he says.
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