Technology

Construction drones to automate groundworks on Japan’s Olympic sites

22 January 2015 | By Tom Ravenscroft

Komatsu, the largest Japanese manufacturer of construction equipment, has unveiled a plan to automate groundworks by leasing and operating a fleet of 200 drones from the US that will be digitally linked to its unmanned excavators and bulldozers.

The company has told the Wall Street Journal that the plan is a response to Japan’s ageing workforce and skills shortage, and that its long-term goal of automated construction has been made possible by advances in drone technology.

Akinori Onodera, president of the Komatsu unit overseeing its “Smart Construction” initiative, told the WSJ that its scheme would help facilitate thousands of construction projects, including many tied to the 2020 summer Olympics in Tokyo.

“We have to improve productivity,” Onodera said. “We believe there is big potential in automation. We think this is the future job site.”

Onodera said that the stumbling block for Komatsu in automating its machinery was the lack of terrain data that was accurate and quickly available. The company has tried to use ground-based scanners, but they took too long.

Onodera explained: “If we want to measure a large construction site, measuring by air is much, much easier. The old way needed two persons for one week. The [drones] can do it in one or two hours [for a similar-size site].”

The drones, manufactured by San Francisco startup Skycatch, are programmed to fly over a set area and carry out a high-precision survey using cameras and sensors to capture data from the site below.

The drones can capture 3D point clouds – with similar accuracy to conventional LIDAR scanning – used to create a 3D model of the construction site. Thermal imaging scans are also possible.

The scan data can then be analysed using industry-standard software from Autodesk, Google and Esri GIS software. 

Komatsu expects to integrate engineering plans, data on underground objects and plans for the excavation, into the drones’ 3D models, and then load that data into unmanned bulldozers and excavators.

Operating using an “intelligent machine control” system that automatically controls the position of the blade or bucket, the bulldozers would also use onboard sensors to record how the layout is changing as they work, allowing the model to be continuously updated.

According to its website, SkyCatch is already working with Aecom, Bouygues and Bechtel on construction, infrastructure and mining projects.

A feature of the SkyCatch quadrocoptor drones is that the company also provides a bespoke device called a “ground station”, which acts as the drone’s home base and launcher.

The device can also download the image and coordinate data from the drone and transmit it directly to servers in the cloud. When the drone lands, a robotic arm inside the ground station can removes its battery and swaps it for a fresh one, increasing flying time.

If we want to measure a large construction site, measuring by air is much, much easier. The old way needed two persons for one week. The [drones] can do it in one or two hours [for a similar-size site].– Akinori Onodera, Komatsu