Autonomous future: driverless cranes
By Alex Dahm17 July 2018
What’s the next big thing for the crane industry? Israeli company IntSite suggests it will be the autonomous crane and it might be coming sooner than you think. ICST reports.
“Welcome to a new era of job site efficiency and safety,” says Mor Ram-On who, with twin brother Tzach, founded IntSite. He describes it as a company “revolutionising the construction industry with the introduction of the autonomous crane.” Both brothers are graduates of the prestigious Technion Israel Institute of Technology. Tzach studied civil engineering while Mor was a student of aerospace engineering.
Tzach, who has spent many long days on construction sites, learned a lot about the most pressing issues, particularly those related to cranes. He said he is determined to bring cranes into the 21st century. Brother Mor is keen to introduce aerospace technologies to the industry. Together, they have created trajectory, control, and navigation algorithms to ensure that cranes operate efficiently and intelligently, substantially shortening project timelines.
The brothers completed their prototype in mid-2017, and are now seeking a partnership with a leading crane manufacturer to assist with market validation, regulations, and further funding.
Ripe for disruption
Though still slow in incorporating innovation (spending on R&D is less than 1 per cent of revenues), the construction industry is in urgent need of reform to overcome the growing shortage of skilled workers, lack of standardisation, and a downturn in productivity and profitability. Incredibly, today, costs can soar to a whopping 80 % over budget – with companies often coughing up more than US$ 150,000 per month for unplanned expenses, Mor says.
There are many reasons for the industry’s remarkable level of inefficiency, including poor planning, mismanagement, and human error – as well as astonishingly outdated equipment – and the crane is at the top of the list. Basically unchanged since its invention by the ancient Greeks in the 6th Century BC, the crane takes centre stage on any job site. Hoisting 70 % of all materials and equipment, it is needed by a wide range of users performing innumerable tasks on every type and size of project. While dramatically impacting the entire process, however, the crane delivers an estimated efficiency of only 55 to 65 %, regularly causing the bottlenecks that lead to costly delays.
Technology is the answer
The industry might be pinning its hopes on technology to overcome the crane’s shortcomings but how can technology help? Job sites present a unique set of complexities and challenges: they are three-dimensional and time-limited, and every project is different – in geography, regulations, and owner preferences. Normally these differences would make a common solution impossible. Although the human eye can’t see it, all sites actually exhibit the same basic patterns and have the same basic core, whatever the materials being used. This has enabled the automation of certain aspects of the construction process.
An array of advanced technologies are needed in the development of next generation autonomous machinery. Here are a few of them. Artificial intelligence (AI) is the ability of a machine to simulate human intelligence. This includes, among other tasks, the performance of visual perception, translation, decision-making, and speech recognition. Machine learning (ML) uses artificial intelligence to enable machines to learn from experience, without being specifically programmed for each task. Computer vision (CV) is the ability of a machine to gain information about the environment from video cameras and then process it and ‘understand’ the images. BIM (building information modelling) is a method for designing and tracking construction projects that significantly increases efficiency. IntSite’s autonomous crane uses all of these, and many more.
The autonomous crane will not eliminate the job of the crane operator, of course. In fact, there will always be someone “in the loop” to ensure that everything is moving along safely and efficiently. Crane operators will be able to override the machinery whenever necessary. In addition, the evolving design will rely heavily on their input, which will provide valuable insights into the needs and challenges arising in the field, and help prioritise the features to be developed.
Since its establishment in early 2017, IntSite has already chalked up significant achievements. It won a competition for construction start ups organised by a major equipment manufacturer. This was followed by the manufacturer creating a fully-funded joint project to test the efficacy of the technology. This manufacturer’s vision – reflecting a growing industry trend – includes automating its machinery over the next few years, a goal it hopes to achieve through co-operation with IntSite and its assistance in the use of computer vision and other advanced technologies.
Next, IntSite was invited to present its prototype at the 2017 International Tower Crane Conference in London, UK, which generated significant interest. Many of the event attendees expressed enthusiasm about the game-changing potential of the innovation.
IntSite also signed a strategic partnership agreement with the largest construction and infrastructure company in Israel, Shikun & Binui – Solel Boneh. According to the contract, Solel Boneh will provide resources and participate in the characterisation, design and inspection of the product at its various sites.
According to Shlomi Assaraf, Solel Boneh VP for business development, “We are very pleased to form this unique collaboration with IntSite, made possible by BuildUp, Shikun & Binui’s innovation programme. In this framework, in the next few years, Solel Boneh will allocate significant resources for the innovative development of autonomous cranes to be used on construction sites, to increase the use of ground breaking technologies in our projects and the entire field.”
Most recently, in line with Israel’s position as “the Startup Nation” and the source of world-class technological innovation, IntSite received a grant from the Israel Innovation Authority of the Ministry of Economy. Formerly known as the Office of the Chief Scientist, the Authority’s role is to nurture and support Israeli innovation across multiple industries.
The next milestone
IntSite is seeking a strong strategic partner from among the leading global crane manufacturers. The ideal partner will be one with whom the company can move forward on numerous fronts. They would have the in-depth knowledge needed to validate the market, could provide funds to expand the IntSite team and complete development, have the clout to influence future regulations for autonomous cranes, and integrate IntSite’s solution into the core of their cranes (and not use it as an add-on). Ultimately, the Ram-On brothers believe that IntSite will become a recognised global leader, enabling them to continue creating the technological breakthroughs that will usher the construction industry into the 21st Century.