Skycatch founder shares his unique perspective on the future of autonomous heavy machinery.
Imagine a construction site where autonomous drones fly overhead and relay information to bulldozers and construction equipment on the ground. Though it may sound like science fiction, such technologies are already being deployed today, and it’s only the start of an artificial revolution in the construction industry.
One of the early innovators in the field, San Francisco-based Skycatch, already has autonomous drones flying above 10,000 job sites around the world, conducting land surveys and relaying data that typically takes two to three weeks to collect manually in only 10 to 15 minutes.
The company also recently partnered with Japanese construction equipment supplier Komatsu to develop technology that allows its bulldozers to communicate with autonomous drones in 5,000 construction sites across Japan.
In spite of these incredible innovations, they’re only just the tip of the AI iceberg, according to Skycatch founder Christian Sanz. Mr. Sanz presented his vision for a future with autonomous construction capabilities during the Web Summit technology conference in Lisbon, Portugal in November 2017.
Should his predictions prove to be accurate, the world as we know it will completely transform, from the ground up.
Why we need to automate construction processes
Most industrialized nations today are facing an infrastructure crisis, failing to meet their maintenance needs with the resources currently available.
“There are more infrastructure projects today than humans are able to properly maintain, and that’s just a fact,” said Sanz. “Bridges, dams, solar farms — we’ve grown so fast and we’ve gotten really good at building, but we’re not really good at maintaining.”
Sanz goes on to explain that since many of the modern construction processes were established in the industrial revolution, the primary bottleneck has remained the same — humans.
“Humans are the ones that interpret information and connect it to a project, task or a new deployment,” he said. “Humans are always in between these decisions. That’s why, through the use of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and AI (artificial intelligence), the goal is to try and bypass the human element.”
Sanz believes that while machines typically require human operators today, they will all soon speak directly to each other.
Drones are just the beginning
While Skycatch currently delivers AI solutions to the construction industry using unmanned aerial vehicles, Sanz believes drones are just the beginning.
“This whole innovation will require smart machines across the board,” he said. “You can’t just do that with the UAV, you have to make the bulldozer smart as well.”
The company has also developed hardware, which Sanz showcased on stage at Web Summit, that can connect almost any machine on a job site to the rest. “This can connect to any sensors, cameras, speakers, you name it — and it will enable machines to become smarter and communicate with other machines,” he said, pointing to the small grey device on the onstage coffee table next to him.
Training and utilizing AI today
While the idea of developing AI software may seem daunting, Sanz assured the audience that programming AI tools is relatively simple, and often doesn’t even require coding skills.
“Most of the coding is already done,” he said. “What you need is training, you need to train smart models. How it works is you get lots of data, you tell the machine 'what is what' on that data, and you let it train itself over time.”
As an example, Skycatch used hundreds of YouTube videos to train its machines to identify other machines, the parts on those machines and their natural motions.
“It’s very simple — capture data, label the data, train the models, then synchronize back with your machines in the field,” said Sanz. “It’s simple, and once you get it working you can scale it.”
Towards a future of full human equalization
While some may find the prospect of a construction site filled with heavy machinery and no human oversight troubling, Sanz says he believes such a future would create prosperity and equality.
“We strongly believe all of this automation is not scary — it’s actually going to bring us true, full human equalization,” he said. “It’s going to be much easier and much more affordable to build things.”
Not only will this technology help maintain crumbling roads and bridges, according to Sanz, but it can also quickly, affordably, reliably and cheaply build new infrastructure and housing.
“Projects are taking less time and the cost of projects are much lower,” he said. “We believe that because we’re seeing it happen already."
About the Author
Jared Lindzon is a freelance journalist based in Toronto, covering a variety of topics, including technology, careers, entrepreneurship, politics and music. His work regularly appears in major publications in Canada, the United States and around the world, including the Globe and Mail, Fast Company, Fortune Magazine, Rolling Stone, Politico, the Guardian and more.More Content by Jared Lindzon