In this dusty arena, a startup called Built Robotics is testing what it thinks is the future of construction: the autonomous track loader. Give it coordinates, tell it what size the hole should be, hit enter, and it tears off and digs the thing with impressive accuracy.
This tractor is not unlike a self-driving car. It uses lidar—that is, it spews lasers—to see the world directly in front of it. The difference being, this lidar is specially designed to work in the high-vibration, high-impact world of construction excavation. The lasers also allow the robot to measure the amount of material it’s scooped up.
But the ATL has one big advantage over self-driving cars: It’s scooting around a relatively static, structured environment. Roads, they’re chaos. A job site isn’t exactly peaceful, but at least the robot is working in a confined space. So to position the robot, Built Robotics uses what’s known as augmented GPS, which combines an on-site base station and satellites to produce location data down to the centimeter.
Still, the construction robots have actual work to do. “The thing that we’re doing which is different and that’s a little bit harder than self-driving cars is we’re actually manipulating our environment,” says Noah Ready-Campbell, founder and CEO of Built Robotics. “If a car is changing the environment around it, then something’s gone really wrong.”