In Japan, Drones Guide Robot Trucks At Construction Sites

More machines, fewer humans

Skycatch Smart Construction

Skycatch Smart Construction

Screenshot by author, from Vimeo

Japan's Komatsu makes construction equipment, and has for almost a century. Construction vehicles are nothing without people to drive them--or at least they used to be. As either an alternative to rising labor costs or simply a solution when workers aren't available, Komatsu now makes construction vehicles that can drive themselves. To get the most out of these self-driving machines, Komatsu recently paired with American dronemaker Skycatch with a plan to have drones survey and map construction sites, and then have unmanned bulldozers and other vehicles go to work.

First, drones fly over a construction site, taking pictures of the ground below. Software then stitches these pictures into 3D maps, and site planners add in the information about what earth they want moved, which areas they want left intact, and what the next stage of construction should look like. The machines then set about their tasks, working on the site under the watchful eye of a remote human controller/manager, instead of individual drivers. It's an excellent use of drone mapping.

Komatsu and Skycatch are calling this "Smart Construction," but it's as much about replacing human workers as it is about machines getting smarter. Japan is currently building stadiums for the 2020 Olympics, and is suffering a shortage of native-born laborers for construction. There are plenty of foreign-born workers available, but Japan's tight controls on visas are inhibiting the country's use of migrant blue-collar workers. Komatsu and Skycatch's collaboration is as much about what technology can do as what the politics of Japan can't: create workers the population finds acceptable, substituting machines for humans.

Watch a video about it below: