Robotic bulldozers are coming soon to a Mortenson construction site near you.
The Golden Valley contractor announced on Wednesday it is working with Built Robotics, a tech startup in San Francisco, to automate some of Mortenson’s heavy equipment. Built provides sensor and hardware packages that run on the company’s proprietary software to operate excavators, bulldozers and skid steers on job sites.
Both companies view the technology as a response to labor shortages in construction. The challenge is particularly acute for Mortenson’s renewable-energy division, said Eric Sellman, vice president and general manager for heavy civil construction. Wind and solar projects tend to involve lots of earth moving over huge areas, often in remote places.
“The sites are far away from urban workforce centers, and we think autonomous machines could be one of the solutions for that labor problem,” Sellman said in an interview.
Mortenson worked with Built Robotics on several projects last year. This year, they’re starting with about 10 machines on three wind-power projects, and a limited scope, concentrating on excavations for turbine foundations. Sellman expects the work to expand from there.
“It isn’t a massive percentage of our fleet, but it is a good step, and what we want to do this year is get our people trained,” he said, adding that robots could eventually be used for grading, foundation backfill and other tasks as Mortenson’s operators become more proficient with them.
Mortenson is by far the most prominent company so far to use the technology, said Gaurav Kikani, vice president of Built Robotics. He described the new partnership as “game-changing” for the small 30-person company.
“We think it helps validate that autonomy is here, and has value for construction,” Kikani said. “We can in fact make construction safer and take people out of harm’s way, and rethink how to construct to be more effective and efficient, so we can build more.”
Built Robotics has a clean safety record with no accidents or injuries, Kikani said. Its software has various layers of protection built in to prevent accidents. In addition to on-board sensors, the robotic machines are constrained by a geofence set by the operator, and can be remotely shut down at any time. The machines have performed ably and safely in their initial deployments on Mortenson sites, Sellman said.
“I observed many, many instances of the machines in operation, and I’m really comfortable we have the right safeguards in place,” he said.
By reducing companies’ reliance on hard-to-find labor, Built Robotics believes it can make renewable-energy projects, and infrastructure in general, cheaper to build. More broadly, Kikani said, the company believes productivity in construction is falling behind that in other industries and that new technologies can be part of the answer.
“There’s this huge backlog of infrastructure that needs to be built,” Kikani said, adding that a lack of workers and declining productivity for each dollar spent on labor makes it difficult for companies to meet those needs. “Tech really hasn’t innovated for the construction industry. That’s what we’re trying to tackle head-on.”