As fun as operating heavy machinery looks, complex machines like excavators require a trained and skilled operator to get a job done quickly and safely. But as the pool of trained operators continues to retire and diminish, the future of construction might be machinery upgraded with robotic smarts so they’re as easy to operate as playing a video game.
Think back to when the Nintendo Wii first brought motion-controlled gaming to the masses. Do you remember how long it took you to master the Wiimote controller? Maybe a couple of minutes? That’s the thinking behind a prototype excavator developed by SRI International, a research institute founded by Stanford University that has been responsible for many technological innovations over the past 75 years, including Siri’s earliest beginnings and even Yamaha’s robotic biker.
Much like the current state of self-driving cars, the smart excavator’s upgrades are completely optional. An operator can hop in the cab and get to work digging trenches and toppling derelict buildings using the excavator’s standard joystick controls, or from a short distance away using a complicated remote controller, a technique often used to improve safety or give the operator a better vantage point of a tricky situation.
If you look close, however, you’ll see the excavator equipped with non-standard features, including several depth-sensing 3D cameras pointed in all directions, as well as antennas and wireless communication hardware. The cameras let the excavator function all by itself if needed, following pre-programmed instructions on where to dig which it can follow all day and all night long without a break. Its autonomous capabilities also include intelligent people detection, causing the excavator to pause its work and flash warning lights when someone gets too close for it, including in blind spot areas where human operators might not spot someone approaching.
What’s more interesting is the upgraded remote operability introduced here. A skilled operator wearing a VR headset can see what the excavator sees anywhere in the world over the internet, and can manually take control of a set of remote joysticks and get to work, even if the construction site is thousands of miles away. But even skills with a joystick aren’t needed, as the excavator can even be operated through the same motion controls that made Wii Sports bowling such a sensation years ago. The excavator’s digging arm and bucket can replicate the movements of an unskilled operator’s arm in real-time using a motion-tracking controller, so if they know how to dig in a sandbox—a skill many of us mastered in our toddler years—they can theoretically operate an expensive piece of construction machinery with as much ease as someone who’s spent a career digging in the dirt.