During the global crisis generated by COVID 19, all the movements have been restricted and in many nations have established restrictions even to work, promoting that all of those who could work from home, did it. This situation has exposed those who are unable to work from home to be more likely infected by this virus. One of this mostly affected sector by this situation is the construction.

But this situation might be closer to be solved that what we think. In all civil engineering or building works, there is an initial phase of earthworks, which is essential because it prepares the soil to resist forces derived of the infrastructure to be built. Some typical operations that earthworks include are: digging soils in a given area, loading that soils into trucks, and transporting them to another location on the worksite where they are necessary to fill clearances or establish embankments. Other operations include compacting soils to ensure correct levelling and efficient load transmission.

“In the near future, this worker could drive this truck from his own home”

These operations are carried out with the help of heavy construction machinery that is driven by specialized workers. Today, automation and robotics are increasingly favouring a smaller presence of machinery drivers on site. Several companies, universities and technology centres have developed their own and commercial products that allow machinery to work without the need for a driver within them. Basically, we can mention the following types of technologies:

  1. Tele operated machinery: A robot is incorporated into the driver’s cabin and is capable of acting on the truck’s control elements. On the other hand, several high-resolution cameras are incorporated and offer all the points of view of the truck. A skilled driver, at distances of even kilometres, can drive the machine remotely from a control centre viewing the terrain and performing excavation or transport tasks as if he were in the cab. In the near future, this worker could drive this truck from his own home.
  1. Autonomous outdoor machinery: A very high resolution GPS RTK, an anti-collision system, an advanced control system and a robot are incorporated inside the machine cabin. A preload of the site map is loaded in the system, which can be dynamically updated according to the technology used, and orders are given to the robot remotely indicating it to go or return to a specific position. This system carries out the action autonomously, that is, making its own decisions as it progresses, avoiding obstacles and reaching the selected point. This type of system is very useful in soil loading / unloading trucks. A driver supervises the entire process from a control centre.

This system carries out the action autonomously[…] A driver supervises the entire process from a control centre.

  1. Autonomous indoor machinery: At the level of performance and control, it is similar to the previous case, but the detection of the environment is normally carried out by means of several strategically located laser scanners and a suitable intelligence (location and navigation) algorithm. This system is very useful for working indoor such as a truck driving through a tunnel, in which there is no GPS signal. This truck can be given orders remotely and its movement throughout the tunnel can be monitored from a control centre, making its own decisions.

The implementation of these technologies could be of great help to the construction sector in case of a pandemic like COVID – 19 for two reasons:

  1. Those works whose current state is in the earthworks phase could be managed with any of these technologies, thus in the case of having to carry out a strict quarantine in which the workers could not leave home, and therefore the works had to stop, these systems would allow us to continue working. In this way, damage to the country’s economy would be partially avoided without breaking the quarantine. Works would not stop and tele-workers could work.
  1. Stronger quarantines could be established reaching “zero contagion” without having to maintain a balance between epidemic risk and economic crisis, as production continues and workers are safe.

Then, a more robotised industry could reduce the economic effects of COVID 19 in our society.

Antonio Alonso Cepeda, Manager at Construction Innovation Technology Centre. Acciona

Are construction workers closer to work from home?