Are remote job site management and operation are changing the construction industry landscape?
Could one person control all the earthmoving on a job site from a remote location? While the idea may seem far-fetched, it’s closer to reality than you think.
“The market sees this possibility evolving and coming to fruition at some point down the road,” said Komatsu’s Jason Anetsberger, director of customer solutions. “Mining has had autonomous trucks hauling billions of tons of materials for quite some time, which gives us an indication of what’s possible.”
Anetsberger added that remote operation, or teleoperation as it’s often called, and autonomy on construction sites are “assets that customers continue to express interest in, especially considering the shortage of workers in the construction industry. Having one or a few people controlling large numbers of machines from an off-site location has the potential to lower costs and increase safety.”
To a degree, the construction industry has already been using remote operation. Several manufacturers offer remote-controlled equipment that allows operators to run machines from outside the cab. These have generally been used in highly sensitive and/or dangerous areas — such as cleaning up land mines or moving contaminated soils — but require operators to be on the site, albeit at a safe distance.
Simulators as a prep tool
There are already tools that can help prepare operators for remote operation. Sophisticated training simulators use virtual reality to bring the look and feel of a job site task to operators and potential operators — all without stepping a foot on-site.
During an educational session (Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and the Future of Work: Are You Ready for the New Realities?) at CONEXPO-CON/AGG in 2020, Jim Colvin, president and CEO of Serious Labs Inc. — which offers virtual reality training solutions — said simulators continue to gain popularity in construction. He said they are more effective than on-the-job training and a good way to build skills faster, and more safely.
“There are ways of training nowadays using VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) that are more engaging, immersive, interesting and effective than traditional training methods,” Colvin said.
Seeing projects from a distance right now
While the construction industry takes initial steps toward fully automating and teleoperating machines, projects can be managed remotely. In the past, project managers often had to drive from one location to the next, but now they can check on multiple sites from their office, vehicle or job site trailer.
Cell phones and computers ushered in the ability to communicate faster between the office and field personnel, and smartphones are making it even easier with applications designed for timecard management, productivity tracking, job site management and planning, and more.
“There are a multitude of apps available that let project managers view the job site in real or near real time right now,” said Bryce Satterly, Komatsu Smart Construction solutions manager. “With digital plans and satellites, they can view an intelligent machine’s monitor and see exactly where it is on a site and its relation to the final elevations. It lets project managers see productivity remotely and make adjustments faster. That can save time and money, and increase productivity.”
According to Anetsberger and Satterly, virtually managing operations is a gateway to machine teleoperation and ultimately the autonomy of construction equipment.
“Virtual, or remote, machine management is a step in the right direction toward one day having fully-remote or autonomous job sites,” said Satterly. “Understanding how to use that information and apply it to equipment operation and overall job site management is invaluable. It could be a key factor in full autonomy and remote operation.”