Nova Scotia

Robots to the rescue. Why the construction industry welcomes them to the job site

From self-driving heavy machinery to four-legged robots the size of dogs, the Canadian construction industry could be fertile ground for innovation, with hopes that robots will improve efficiency, safety and help solve persistent labour shortages.

'It's going to open up a whole new field and we certainly hope to attract a new generation of workers'

The Spot robot by Boston Dynamics is being used by the Canadian construction company Pomerleau. (Boston Dynamics)

Thousands of tonnes of earth in the United States has been moved by bulldozers and excavators that have no one at the controls. The heavy machinery is completely autonomous, and the company that created it wants to expand into Canada and help revolutionize the country's construction industry.

"We want to get into Canada soon," said Erol Ahmed, the director of communications with Built Robotics. "Canada is a great market for us because, you know, one of the big benefits of robots is they can work in remote areas with less labour. And Canada has a lot of remote construction projects ... that is ideal for robots to help."

Construction sites in Canada are transforming into the next great frontier for robots. From self-driving heavy machinery to four-legged robots, the construction industry is fertile ground for innovation, with hopes that robots will improve efficiency, safety and help solve persistent labour shortages.   

Canada's construction industry will need to recruit more than 307,000 new workers in the next decade, according to a report by BuildForce Canada earlier this year. BuildForce is an organization that studies the construction industry and assembles long-term labour forecasts.

Built Robotics transforms heavy machinery into autonomous robots. This excavator, for instance, doesn't require a human driver. (Built Robotics)

The Canadian Construction Association hopes the adoption of new technology will help solve that problem.

"The programming, the repairs of robotics, it's going to open up a whole new field and we certainly hope to attract a new generation of workers to the industry, so we hope that will also help address the shortfall in workers," said Mary Van Buren, president of the association.

She said technology like self-driving vehicles could also help because there is a shortage of truck drivers to bring construction materials to their destinations. 

While a fully operational self-driving car hasn't hit the market yet, Built Robotics has already started using its machines on construction sites. 

That is possible because a job site is a controlled environment and the robots can easily be programmed to clear land in a specific area, said Ahmed, whereas a self-driving car would have to deal with many more uncontrollable variables on a public road.

"We talk about robotics as a future technology so much in the media, but construction is actually one of the few places where robotics are being used in practical commercial applications," he said. 

Erol Ahmed is director of communications with Built Robotics. (Submitted by Erol Ahmed)

Built Robotics turns regular heavy equipment like bulldozers and excavators into self-driving autonomous robots, which can do things like dig trenches, plow and compact soil.

The company adapts most traditional heavy equipment into autonomous vehicles by attaching an artificial intelligence to them. The AI is equipped with a suite of sensors including cameras and GPS. The AI is then plugged directly into the machine's hydraulic system so it can operate it.

"The brain is sort of in this rugged outdoor box that we put on the back," said Ahmed. 

Spot, the robot dog designed by Boston Dynamics, is now helping out construction workers in Montreal. (Matt D'Amours/Radio-Canada)

The machines make it safer for construction workers who no longer have to go into potentially dangerous areas to do their work. Ahmed said the robots excel at doing mundane, repetitive tasks, and that frees up workers to do more complicated jobs. 

The robots also improve productivity because they can be run for a longer period of time without needing any kind of break. 

One Canadian construction company has already made the leap into using robots. Pomerleau, based in Quebec, is leasing two Spot robots from Boston Dynamics, one of the world leaders in robotics. 

The Spot robot is a bright yellow four-legged robot outfitted with numerous cameras and sensors. It's sometimes referred to as a robot dog. 

Yuri Bartzis is an innovation manager with Pomerleau. (Submitted by Yuri Bartzis)

Pomerleau uses it to walk construction sites and detail exactly how fast work is progressing. The robot records things like how much drywall is up or how much concrete has been poured.

That information can help the company estimate how long it will take to finish a job and predict how much it will cost to complete a project in real time.

All that data also helps contractors prepare for work since they know exactly what's completed and what they will have to do next, creating fewer delays on the work site. 

"We predict a huge value and money saved by implementing this robot," said Yuri Bartzis, an innovation manager with Pomerleau. 

He said they still don't have clear figures on exactly how much time or money the robot could save the company. The Boston Dynamics website, however, said Pomerleau was able to save approximately 20 hours per week by using Spot, and that the robot took nearly 5,000 images per week. 

Meet Spot the robot dog

3 years ago
Duration 1:31
Spot is working at the construction firm Pomerleau's site at Place-Ville Marie, leaving human workers free to perform more complex tasks.

It's unlikely Spot will take anyone's job, said Brian Ringley, Boston Dynamics' construction technology manager. 

"One thing about working with robots, even some of the most advanced robots in the world, is it really makes you appreciate how complex and sophisticated humans are," he said. 

"Where we see Spot as being valuable is first and foremost removing people from hazardous environments, enclosed spaces, irradiated environments, just to name a few." 

Boston Dynamics has about 400 Spot robots doing work for various customers. Several dozen general contractors are using the machine. So far, Bartzis believes only Pomerleau is using the robot in Canada.

The software interface for Built Robotics' automated heavy machinery. (Built Robotics)

But revolutionizing the construction industry with robots comes with a steep price tag. 

Built Robotics charges a monthly fee for the use of the technology that makes heavy machinery autonomous. Users are also charged a fee for how many hours the machines run autonomously. 

Ahmed wouldn't provide the exact costs but said the monthly fee is thousands of dollars.

A base Spot robot will cost you $74,500 US.

Still it's a cost that needs to be paid, said Carl Haas, a professor who studies AI and automation in construction at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. 

Built Robotics automated machinery is set up to only operate in certain areas inside a construction site. That area is then physically blocked off so people can't enter. (Built Robotics)

Haas said countries in Europe and eastern Asia have already brought in a lot of this technology. 

"Canada needs to embrace it and be aggressive about it, because other parts of the world are ahead of us," he said. "We are going to be left in the dust if we don't take control of this movement."