On a jobsite in northern California, a skid-steer loader digs out a patch of dirt, depositing the spoils in a nearby stockpile. No one is in the cab, and no remote operator can be seen. Onboard software follows a preset dig plan, using LIDAR and GPS to navigate the site.

“Once the technicians sorted out its positioning, it was able to keep working without interruption,” says David Warner, owner of San Rafael, Calif.-based Redhorse Construction. The contractor is running a pilot of a fully autonomous skid-steer system from tech start-up Built Robotics. The company has been working on autonomous equipment for two years and recently went public with its technology. With a host of Silicon Valley investors and former Autodesk CEO Carl Bass on its board, Built Robotics is looking to bring full automation to construction earth­moving equipment in the next year.

“Many automatic features available today in construction are the equivalent of adaptive cruise control on cars,” says Noah Ready-Campbell, CEO and founder of Built Robotics. “We’re building full autonomy, getting the operator out of the machine.”  

Once a work area has been defined, Built Robotics’ control system uses GPS to ensure the skid steer does not leave the geo-fenced area. A 3D profile of what needs to be excavated is loaded in, and the system’s LIDAR provides real-time mapping of the surrounding area and obstacles. Currently, the dig plan has to be custom-designed in the software, but Ready-Campbell says they will soon be able to import 3D models from earthmoving modeling software.

The system is designed to cease work if it encounters un­expected obstructions, and Ready-Campbell says the robot can work safely around humans. Warner says his team would try to trip up the robot on the pilot site. “We’ve been doing things like forcing a large rock into its way, just to see what it does.” While a human operator would come up with a work-around plan, the robot can only stop and wait for an updated plan. But the software is being improved as Built Robotics gathers more data. “On the next test, we’ll bury hidden pipes out in the field, just to see what it does then,” says Warner. 

Built Robotics plans to take its system to larger earthmovers, including full-size excavators. While the start-up hasn’t disclosed the price, Ready-Campbell says production gains from fully autonomous equipment will be worth the investment. “We’ll be doing takeoffs from the CAD documents [and] loading them into the machines, and they can just go.”.