From self-drive cars to food delivery robots, developers have been promising autonomous solutions to consumers ever more frequently over the past years. The key area in which self-drive and autonomous technology is most prevalent is in vehicle development. In industries such as construction and mining the dream is reaching actuality. Recent years have already seen a flurry of activity, with companies advertising and releasing autonomous machinery that may shape the heavy machinery industry’s trajectory over the following decade.
Why Are autonomous machines being developed?
Many reasons regarding the development of autonomous machinery exist. For some, the reasons lie in the development of awareness of health and safety on construction sites. Alternatively, for others, the development of autonomous machinery is a result of natural economic growth. In many ways, these two reasons appear to be interchangeable.
As the world’s population naturally grows, industrial companies, particularly those in the Construction sector, are required to build and develop both residential and commercial infrastructure. The rise in demand for construction projects results in a need for skilled workers. Further, some jobs involved in construction projects involve monotonous, sometimes dangerous, work. The development of autonomous machinery can provide those working in the industry with the means to assign these tasks to a machine. For example, tasks in groundworking can be completed by machines that are programmed to dig trenches automatically.
The reasons for developing autonomous machinery for Earthmoving industries fall into three categories: safety, productivity, and efficiency. Safety is a key factor for a multitude of reasons. While having autonomous vehicles is the goal, even the steps towards autonomous machines that exist in 2020 in vehicles requiring operator can be crucial in protecting workers from harm. By automating safety features in plant vehicles, including positioning systems and touchscreen monitors allowing operators a 360 degree view of their machine and surroundings, plant machinery becomes safer for both the operator and other workers on site.
However, safety alone is not a strong enough attraction for the development of autonomous machinery. As a health and safety specialist once told me, ‘people don’t think safety is sexy’. For this reason, autonomous solutions for productivity problems in plant operation become prevalent in the development process. The main argument for developing autonomous machinery in terms of productivity is the idea of decreasing the risk of human error.
Productivity becomes an extra factor when taken into account with economic factors. The construction industry is facing a skills shortage. The number of skilled workers in the UK construction industry in the UK has been in decline for the past five years. Faced with this decline, the introduction of autonomous technology and machinery in the construction industry has allowed companies to keep up with demand for projects to be completed caused by economic growth. For example, the introduction of drones has allowed the work of three people to be completed by one operator in a fraction of the time. Some can now be pre-programmed with a flight pattern, meaning no operator is required at the time of use.
The fact that one small machine can do the job of what would previously been three workers in the past, may be where the argument of ‘the machines are here to take our jobs’ has arisen. However, given the skills shortage in the construction industry, autonomous machinery is becoming a necessity.
You can read more on this topic in the April 2019 Issue of Plant Planet.