Robotification kit allows construction equipment to be virtually manned. Image credit: SRI/Reuben Brewer

Kit Turns Humble Machine into Smooth Excavator

Aug 30, 2022

by Michael Beachum

On the growing list of industries leveraging the virtual world to control the real one, it’s no surprise one of the most ubiquitous would at some point find itself under the spell of the goggle, and the whims of the lone conductor acting out his personal symphony for all to see—construction. 

Cue SRI.

A nonprofit research institute that has been developing robotic devices for decades that has created a prototype robotic excavator to perform some of the typical, if not mostly repetitive, tasks one might expect from such a piece of equipment, and let’s be honest, a few tricks as well, with just the wave of an arm, the move of a joystick or by automation.

Says Reuben Brewer, senior robotics engineer at SRI International, researchers at SRI basically took a diesel-powered hydraulic excavator, created a “robotification kit” and turned it into a robot.
 
“We don't touch the hydraulics at all,” he said. “We've got computers and sensors that you bolt on to it that, essentially, connects to the internet, and we use electric motors to move all of the levers and pedals like a human does.”

Watch the Video: Workplace Robots
 
When asked what the motivation was for developing the kit, Brewer explained SRI is always looking for ways to improve people’s lives.
 
“Construction jobs are a perfect fit where robotics can make workers' daily-grind better by addressing the traditional three Ds of dirty, dangerous and dull,” he said “As a starting machine to get people excited about what's possible, we chose the childhood-dream-favorite of the excavator. It turns out that operating an excavator can be pretty uncomfortable and hazardous (sitting out in the heat and dust with the potential to tip-over).
 
“We thought it'd be awesome to be able to do the same work from the comfort and safety of an air-conditioned, clean space somewhere else on the site, across town, or even in a different city or state, Brewer said.
 
The most obvious benefits include everything from safety and comfort to efficiency and autonomy as some of the tech powering the equipment provide complete omniscience, like 360 point cloud for a more immersive experience and to eliminate blind spots. Atop the excavator’s canopy is a light beacon for auto human detection that immediately stops operation if triggered, as well as, stereo cameras. All of which are dust- and waterproof and feed a 360-degree view to the operation and safety systems.
 
And the hardware, which also includes sensors, runs off the excavator’s battery and recharges itself as the excavator runs.

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So, on one (virtual) hand, operators can be more productive, potentially working several different jobsites at once. On the other, an operator could work an excavator at another site when there is downtime. This is also good news for an industry that’s been hit with labor shortages due to COVID-era challenges.
 
When asked about the obvious concerns of “robots replacing humans,” Brewer said he sees the robotic equipment as a way to attract a new generation of workers. The kit allows operators to be trained much quicker and easier, saying an operator can be up and digging in 20 minutes and be digging since the controls are so much more intuitive and don’t require as much muscle memory.
 
But has it all been a walk through the virtual park? After all, there are no real problems in the virtual realm, only those manufactured. Were there limitations or hurdles that proved to be more difficult? Or conversely, those that likely would be difficult that weren’t?  
 
SRI hasn’t completed distance testing with the remote operation yet, but the wireless joystick controls worked at least about 100 yards away, and the VR setup, which uses the internet, was tested at about 20 miles away.

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“This system is really flexible and could easily be adapted to any heavy machinery you like,” Brewer said. “When you're developing the system for the first machine ever, it takes years. However, when you're adapting it to a different machine, it only takes a few months (basically need to laser-scan the machine's cab to get a 3D layout of all the knobs, levers, and pedals to know where to place your motors). We could easily adapt this to install on a different model excavator or another type of machine, like a bulldozer, front-loader, forklift, etc.”
 
So, how do you get your hands on one? You don’t. Because SRI is a nonprofit, it only paves the way and laid the groundwork for outside companies to commercialize the concept. Because the heavy lifting has already been done, configuring the kit to other construction equipment is a much faster prospect that has turned years into only months as the kit’s development was slowed due to the pandemic.
 
“We envisioned remote operation as a way to allow the operator to log-into different excavators and job-sites so that they're digging on one site while they're waiting on another,” he said. “This makes the job less boring and better paying. Between the increased comfort, safety, and pay, we're hoping to keep more workers in the jobs they already have and to attract new workers to the field”
 
Check out SRI International’s video of the robot excavator in action. To learn more about SRI, visit www.SRI.com.

Michael Beachum is a freelance science and technology writer in Dallas, Tex.

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