As the labor shortage deepens, Mortenson Construction is going high-tech by rolling out a fleet of remote-controlled excavators powered by "autonomous robotic equipment technology" that has been developed by San Francisco-based Built Robotics.
"We're not replacing humans," said Eric Sellman, vice president and general manager for heavy civil construction for Twin Cities-based Mortenson. "We want to take a proactive step to deal with the labor shortage ... and give our teams the latest tools to deal with that."
While the technology is state-of-the-art in an industry that has relied on humans in hard hats to run its equipment, the driverless machines will be used primarily on renewable-energy projects in remote areas where there is a dearth of workers and places to house them, and a lack of obstacles.
That includes the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project, a turbine wind farm on a 320,000-acre cattle ranch in Carbon County, Wyo., that is being developed by the Power Company of Wyoming.
There, Mortenson has been tasked with digging hundreds of tower foundations that are about 10 feet deep and 100 feet in diameter. Remote controlled bulldozers will also be used to level the ground using mapping software, GPS coordinates and surveyors equipment that will give the machines instruction.
Sellman said several layers of safety redundancies are built into the system. The software uses a 3-D model that draws a geo-fence around the specific work area to contain the range of the excavators. And human operators in construction trailers will use video cameras to monitor the machines, which can quickly be disabled if they approach an obstacle.
"It's very repetitive work, Sellman said, given that each of the hundreds of foundation sites are all of a very similar size. Last year the company tested the technology at two projects in Kansas.
"By the end of the second project we were comfortable enough with the safety and efficiency to target six more projects this year alone," Sellman said.
Mortenson and other companies have been investing heavily in technology aimed at helping streamline the construction process at a time when there's a shortage of qualified and skilled labor, especially in rural areas.
The company doesn't have short-term plans to deploy the technology on more traditional sites in more populated areas, but that could be down the road.
"We're really targeting this for remote sites that are far enough from where people want to live and work," said Sellman. "Every construction worker that wants to work will have a place to work; we're not trying to replace good people with robots."
Gaurav Kikani, vice president with Built Robotics, said the project is "a huge milestone" for the company, which was founded in 2016 and has about 35 employees.
The tech company is focused on automating heavy equipment using software, machine learning and sophisticated algorithms.
The partnership with Mortenson supports the notion that automation is well-suited for construction and is a practical and viable solution for a lot of the "pain points" the industry is experiencing.
"The validation we get from partnering with such a prominent partner is meaningful," Kikani said. "It shows that there's traction in the market and that the technology is ready for prime time."