Mobile Robot Use Cases Grow in Construction as Technology Advances

Development and use of robots are increasing in heavy equipment markets. The often smaller, autonomously operated machines can help improve safety and productivity on jobsites as they are able to maneuver over a variety of terrain and obstacles that might otherwise be difficult for larger machines or people.

In November 2019, Trimble and Hilti announced they would integrate their construction management software solutions, GNSS technology and reality capture devices with Boston Dynamics’ Spot Robot platform. According to the companies, doing so provides consistent output, delivers improved efficiency on repeatable tasks and enables up to date as-built data analysis.

“Utilizing robots for routine tasks in hazardous environments to improve safety, efficiency and data capture consistency is part of our digital transformation vision,” noted Aviad Almagor, senior director for Mixed Reality and Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) at Trimble, when the integration was announced. “We are excited for this latest collaboration and looking forward to the potential integration of our hardware and software solutions with the Boston Dynamics Spot Robot to enhance field-oriented workflows, reduce [the] amount of rework and facilitate on-site tasks.”

Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology more recently announced its partnership with Exyn Technologies Inc. to use aerial robot systems to help improve autonomous mining capabilities. The companies will use the robots to map and visualize underground mines that might otherwise be difficult to survey or inspect.

Data collected by the aerial robots will be combined with Sandvik’s OptiMine technology to provide an accurate picture of a mine’s environment and the processes which take place within it. Eventually, the companies aim to apply and generate 3D views and perceptions of underground spaces autonomously.

“For the first time, customers will be able to map the entirety of their underground operations, even in dangerous GPS-denied environments, while making mining safer and improving productivity. Through this partnership, we hope to empower efficient decision-making for customers and drive towards the vision of fully autonomous mining operations,” states Nader Elm, CEO and co-founder of Exyn Technologies.

Technology Enables Reliable Operation

A variety of technologies are utilized to enable robots to operate, including various sensors and GPS systems.

Septentrio’s AsteRx-m2 Sx OEM board is a GNSS receiver designed to provide high-accuracy positioning in a variety of applications, including small robots. The receiver includes built-in GNSS corrections, ensuring high accuracy and reliability. Building this technology into the GNSS receiver simplifies use for manufacturers as they do not have to subscribe to a correction service or worry about where they will get the GNSS corrections from, says Gustavo Lopez, Septentrio’s market access manager.

Boston Dynamics’ Spot Robot with a Trimble X7 3D Laser Scanning System, a high-speed laser scanner with integrated imaging, automatic calibration and registration technologies as well as survey-grade self-leveling.Boston Dynamics’ Spot Robot with a Trimble X7 3D Laser Scanning System, a high-speed laser scanner with integrated imaging, automatic calibration and registration technologies as well as survey-grade self-leveling.TrimbleSecurity and signal reliability are important factors, especially as construction and other industries move toward robotics, says Lopez. While there may already be existing low-cost GPS chipsets available in the market, they may not be reliable enough or “offer the resilience or security you might need for autonomous robotics applications, especially when the machines become bigger.”

Lopez says robotic and other machine applications can benefit from the small size, low power draw and reliability of the mosaic GNSS module, AsteRx-m2 Sx and the company’s other receiver technologies. “The seamless integration of GNSS corrections is a game changer in the market as it makes the integration of high accuracy as transparent as possible for newer robotics applications,” he says.

With the growing development of robots and other autonomous vehicles, sensor fusion is becoming increasingly more important. “One of the elements of sensor fusion linked to robotics is [related to] positioning,” says Lopez, such as through the combination of GPS and inertial measurement units (IMU). Combining GPS and IMU technology creates inertial navigation which allows for more robust positioning information even in difficult operating conditions. “Sometimes due to the environment, you might not be able to track GNSS signals. If you have an IMU, you can improve reliability and availability of the solution.”

Having the IMU technology also enables orientation of the vehicle to be determined in addition to its position. This is particularly beneficial when integrators want the robot to focus on a specific trajectory or on an implementer task requiring a sense of direction, says Lopez. He notes AsteRx-i product line combines high-end GNSS receiver technology with industrial-grade IMU to provide both reliable positioning and vehicle orientation information.

Septentrio is working with customers to provide them with robust GNSS/INS sensor fusion for their applications. This enables the manufacturer who is developing the robot or other machine type to focus on the customer application side, creating a piece of equipment that will meet the end customer’s needs.
Future Market Growth

Lopez says it is an explosion right now with different robotic companies entering the market, and there are certain applications in which use of robots will continue to increase. Construction, agriculture, mining, landscaping, logistics and delivery are all areas where interest and use of robots is increasing.

“People are really focused on efficiency,” Lopez says. “Also, people are wanting to do things in a cheaper way, so they are looking into robotics.”

In addition, the safety benefits of using robots for certain tasks has been spotlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Because the pandemic caused many people to have to stay at home or to take extra precautions to ensure health and safety, robots have been able to step in and help with the workload in certain cases and demonstrate the various capabilities they offer.

Siemens and Aucma rapidly developed a prototype disinfection robot to aid in the fight against coronavirus.Siemens and Aucma rapidly developed a prototype disinfection robot to aid in the fight against coronavirus.SiemensUse of mobile robots has enabled successful disinfection, monitoring, surveillance and handling and delivery of materials during the global health crisis. ABI Research says these proven use cases will propel the overall mobile robotics market to a value of $23 billion by 2021.

As robotics technology advances, so will GPS and other systems utilized to enable the operation of mobile robots. Lopez says the number of GNSS signals will continue increasing, which will make it important for integrators to choose receivers that can track them. He notes that some of those new signals will start transmitting corrections and authentication to help prevent jamming and spoofing, which can hinder security of a system.

Receivers themselves will continue to get smaller and smaller, and costs will come down as use of the technology grows. “It will definitely be quite interesting how the technology will be changing,” Lopez says.

Manufacturers partnering with navigation technology providers and developers like Septentrio will be better able to create robotic and other autonomous machinery for heavy-duty applications, says a report from ABI Research. The analysis firm notes that advanced mobility enabling autonomous navigation will empower robotics vendors in construction, mining and elsewhere. While in 2018, 28.7% of commercial robots’ shipments had some degree of autonomous navigation, the report estimates by 2027 the percentage will be 79.3%.

“Construction robots may be involved in specific tasks, such as bricklaying, painting, loading and bulldozing. We expect hundreds of AMRs (Autonomous Mobile Robots) in the next two years, mainly doing haulage,” indicates Rian Whitton, research analyst for ABI Research. “These robots help to protect workers from a hazardous working environment, reduce workplace injuries and address labor shortages.”

As off-road equipment industries like construction and mining “continue to strive for cost efficiency and workplace safety, task-specific autonomous mobile robots hold the key to the future,” Whitton concludes.