Built Robotics, a San Francisco-based start-up company developing aftermarket kits that can autonomously operate construction equipment, just got a $64 million boost in funding.
The company announced the close of $64 million Series C funding led by Tiger Global, bringing the total funding to $112 million. Existing investors, including NEA, Founders Fund, Fifth Wall and Building Ventures, also joined the round.
With installation of Built Robotics’ Exosystem, excavators can be transformed into fully autonomous trenching robots. CEO Noah Ready-Campbell says the Series C funding will help ramp up production and get the robots in the hands of more contractors.
“The number one thing is it helps us scale our manufacturing,” Ready-Campbell says. Company officials like to joke that the Exosystems are artisanally made in San Francisco. “That works for the early days, but it’s now how you scale up to hundreds of even thousands of these things.”
Rather than partner with one heavy equipment manufacturer or attempt to develop its own machines, Built Robotics' business model is installation of an aftermarket kit that can turn your excavator into an earthmoving robot. Ready-Campbell says they don’t view the equipment manufacturers as competition.
“I think it's a really challenging problem, and it's primarily a software problem,” Ready-Campbell says.
Built Robotics was founded on the idea of finding a challenging problem to help solve as an engineer. Based on his own background, Ready-Campbell turned to construction.
“What we've really realized is that for particular tasks, there's just this tremendous labor shortage right now in the construction industry, and contractors are not able to hire qualified operators,” Ready-Campbell says. Using autonomous machines is a step in addressing that labor shortage, while also the next step in the evolution of construction sites.
Starting by outfitting compact track loaders in 2017, Built Robotics then moved on to dozers before settling on excavators as the ideal machine due to the repetitive nature of the tasks. CTLs are the Swiss Army knife of machines on a construction site, and even dozers are tasked with enough unique jobs that are not repetitive that it became more difficult to use as a robotic function.
“We've identified trenching for buried infrastructure as kind of the best application for robots,” Ready-Campbell says. “We think there's going to be more applications in the future, but this is one where the robots are ready to go. It's not the most challenging task on the job, but it needs to be to spec and needs to be dug safely. What we found is that if the contractors can kind of just set up the robots, and they can knock out the trenches, that frees up their personnel to do other more challenging tasks on the project.”
While not totally unique in the market, depending on your definition of autonomous, Built Robotics is among the first to commercially deploy fully autonomous systems for excavators.
More than an idea
Work with the company’s Exosystems started in northern California with a project involving a community garden. Currently, there are excavators fitted with a Built Robotics system deployed on a 1.1-gigawatt solar farm, one of the largest such sites in the country.
“We've been on projects of all shapes and sizes,” Ready-Campbell says. “We think it’s the best way to dig a trench, and our customers have tended to agree.”
The company business model is such that it does not charge a large upfront capital cost. Installation and training are included in a monthly rental fee and hourly wage, which makes it more approachable even for a small or mid-sized contractor, he says. Contractors can rent Exosystems as standalone units to install on their equipment, or they can lease pre-upgraded excavators from Built Robotics directly.
To date, Built Robotics technology has been supported by contractors, including Mortenson and Black & Veatch, who have tried the Exosystem and used the autonomous machines. Ready-Campbell says contractors have been pragmatic in their responses.
“If you give them a tool which is ready to go out of the gate and it immediately improves productivity and saves time, they’re actually pretty willing to lean into the technology,” he says. “I think that the thing that's been a challenge for the industry is just that it's inherently a tricky environment to deploy autonomous systems.”
Along with continued funding for growth, Built Robotics has received support through a training partnership with the 400,000-member International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), which represents equipment operators in the U.S. and Canada. At the core of the partnership is assurance that operators will be trained on the latest technology available, since robots are considered one of those future tools. Through the partnership, Built Robotics has trained several union operators as robotic equipment operators, or REOs.
“We think that is going to be one of the crucial paths to scale this technology in a safe way in the future,” Ready-Campbell says.
An 80,000-pound robot?
Built Robotics’ Exosystem is designed to fit mid-size to large excavators, 15- to 60-ton machines. With the late-model machines, it works with the pure electronics, and on the older machines, the company will install its own manifold to control the pilot hydraulics.
The Exosystem is currently a significantly sized and liquid-cooled black box packed full of electronics on the back of the machine, but as technology is developed and some of the pieces are miniaturized, the hope is to apply similar technology to smaller machines such as compact excavators.
These machines are a significant capital expenditure, and it is important that the tool is as flexible as possible to give contractors that uptime to generate a return on their investment. While the robotic trenching capability is significant, excavators are versatile machines on job sites, so a flip of a switch allows an operator to jump in the cab and take over.
As for actual operation, Ready-Campbell says, safety is a primary concern outside of successfully getting the trench dug properly. To accommodate those concerns, Built Robotics has an eight-layer safety system in place:
- Orange taped out safety barrier to warn people to not approach the machine.
- Geofenced GPS survey area telling the machine to stay within that area.
- Stereo-camera based perception system to keep continuous eye on pedestrians and obstacles.
- Radar system to further detect obstacles.
- Hi-Vis Safety lights that flash blue to warn away anyone approaching. If the lights are solid, it’s safe to approach; if the lights are flashing, stay away because it’s in autonomous mode.
- Wireless E-stops with a range of up to 546 yards.
- Hardwired E-stop on the machine, if you’re close to it and it starts to move.
- Safety signs and decals.
To date, Built Robotics rentals have a perfect safety record, according to Ready-Campbell.
Once programed into the geofenced area the machine can dig whatever kind of trench is needed within that area. A CSV file with details on depth, grade and other specifics can be uploaded to the Exosystem to tell the machine what to do. At that point, the robot takes over and digging begins, without anyone in the cab.
"You get the same functions basically, but it's fully autonomous because you don't have a person in the cab," Ready-Campbell says.
The system operates via a cloud-based app called Everest that allows operators to control the Exosystem from a laptop anywhere in the world. Ready-Campbell currently says the only task available in the system is digging a trench. Additional tasks such as backfilling, compaction and material handling will be added to Everest later this year and into 2023.
“We think there's a lot of different things that the robot can do, and it's just a matter of rolling out the features and making sure that they're reliable and ready for prime time,” Ready-Campbell says.