Robot excavator operates with a wave, a wireless joystick, or pure automation

SRI International Robot Excavator
Using virtual-reality goggles and hand controls, the operator can gesture with their arms, and SRI International's robotic excavator mirrors the action instantly. Image © SRI International

In a world where automation and digitalization are ubiquitous, the construction industry has remained relatively untouched by the vast strides in robotic advancement. However, that narrative is starting to change, and at the forefront of this change is SRI International. This nonprofit research institute, known for its decades-long development of robotic devices, has now ventured into the construction realm, turning an ordinary excavator into something straight out of a sci-fi movie.

Earlier this year, SRI International released a video showcasing its prototype robotic excavator, performing a myriad of tasks and tricks through mere gestures, joystick movements, or automated commands. Reuben Brewer, the Senior Robotics Engineer at the institute, dubs this innovation as the “robotification kit.” So, what is this kit all about?

Bringing machines to life

At its core, the kit transforms a standard diesel-powered hydraulic excavator into a robot. The team at SRI International affixed electric motors to the machine, enabling the levers and pedals to move similarly to how a human would operate them. Accompanying these motors are a series of sensors and computers that connect the excavator to the internet. Brewer encapsulates this transformation by stating, “it’s not just an excavator, it’s a robot arm that happens to be an excavator.”

Diverse operation modes

One of the standout features of this robot excavator is the versatility it offers in operational modes:

  • Virtual Reality Operation: Using VR goggles and hand controls, operators can gain a 3D perspective of the surroundings, right down to depth perception. They can control the bucket’s movements by merely moving their hands, making the entire process more intuitive and effortless.
  • Semi-automated Operation: Here, operators can instruct the robot about certain moves, setting the course of action, and then initiating the ‘play’ command.
  • Wireless Joystick Operation: This mode, designed primarily for seasoned operators, allows them to control the excavator using a wireless joystick that can either be worn or placed on a desk.

Benefits galore

SRI International’s primary aim behind this development was two-fold: enhancing the working conditions for construction workers and addressing the industry’s labor shortage. With the robotic excavator, operators no longer have to endure the scorching heat or dust-filled environments. They can now operate the machine remotely from an air-conditioned space, resulting in increased comfort, reduced turnover, and better safety.

Moreover, a single operator can now potentially manage multiple sites, seamlessly switching between them based on work demands. This efficiency could be a game-changer in addressing labor shortages, making training quicker and more intuitive.

Hardware and safety

Safety remains paramount, and the robot excavator ensures that with its hardware setup. Installed on top of the canopy is a beacon light that signals when the excavator is active. Accompanying it are dust and waterproof stereo cameras that offer a 360-degree view, eliminating machine blind spots and enhancing operator awareness.

Furthermore, the robot operates on the excavator’s battery, ensuring it remains charged throughout. Distance tests reveal that while the wireless joystick works effectively up to 100 yards, the VR setup can operate efficiently up to 20 miles away.

The road ahead and commercial viability

While SRI International has opened the door to the future of robotic construction, the commercialization of the product will likely be taken up by outside companies. Given the successful prototype, adapting this system to other construction equipment seems not just plausible but also a quicker endeavor.

However, amidst the excitement of this innovation, concerns about job losses are natural. Brewer seeks to dispel these fears, emphasizing that the robot’s goal is not to replace but to amplify human jobs. The aim is to make tasks more comfortable, safer, and more efficient, ultimately focusing on bettering the lives of the operators.

Pricing and availability

As of now, specific pricing details have not been disclosed. Since SRI International is a nonprofit, the commercialization, production, and subsequent pricing would be determined once an outside company decides to bring the concept to the market.

In conclusion, the realm of construction is poised for a revolution, with robotification leading the charge. It’s a shift from traditional practices, promising not just efficiency and safety but also a brighter, more sustainable future for the industry. Whether you’re a seasoned operator or a newcomer, the future, it seems, is automated.

Source: SRI International