Excavator Turned Robot: Video Reveals Sci-Fi-Like Operation

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Updated Aug 12, 2022
SRI International robot excavator operator with virtual reality goggles raises arm and excavator raises arm
With virtual-reality goggles and hand controls, the operator of SRI International's robot excavator can move his arms and the excavator mimics the movement instantly.
SRI International

A nonprofit research institute that has been developing robotic devices for decades has turned its attention to the construction industry.

Earlier this year, SRI International released a video showing its prototype robotic excavator performing a series of tasks and tricks at the wave of an arm, the move of a joystick or by automation. (To watch the video, see the end of this story.)

“We call it the 'robotification kit,'” says Reuben Brewer, senior robotics engineer at SRI International.

Basically, the researchers at SRI took a diesel-powered hydraulic excavator and turned it into a robot.

“We’ve got electric motors that we put on the excavator that actually move the levers and the pedal just like a human moves them,” he says. “We've got computers and sensors that you bolt on to it. And then essentially, that connects it to the internet. So now, it's not just an excavator, it's basically just a robot arm that happens to be an excavator.”

“Easier to learn”

The robot excavator can be operated remotely one of three ways:

  • Virtual reality goggles and hand controls – The operator gets a 3D view of the excavator’s surroundings, including depth perception, and can move their hands to direct the bucket what to do, kind of like a Wii video game. “Instead of controlling the excavator joint by joint, which is fairly difficult, they're controlling the bucket position and orientation. And that's a lot more intuitive,” Brewer explains. “So if you want to take a scoop, then you move your hand in a scoop shape, and the bucket simply follows it. Because that's much more intuitive, it's easier to learn.” With the goggles you can see how deep the hole is, how long it is. “As long as you can see what you're doing with the camera feed, that's all I found necessary to really to dig a hole.”
  • Semi-automated – The operator teaches the robot how to make semi-automated moves. “You’re telling the robot what you want it to do and then hitting play,” he says.
  • Wireless joystick – The operator can wear the device with a harness or it can be placed on a desk in front of them. The joysticks operate the pedals and levers as an operator in the cab would. It is designed more for the veteran operator. “We thought that was important for existing workers who've been doing this for decades who might not want to have to change the way they’re doing everything overnight,” Brewer says. “They can operate exactly the same with our wireless joystick harness.”

“A lot more comfortable”

SRI sought to accomplish two main goals with the robot excavator: improve job conditions for construction workers and help the industry fill its labor shortage.

“Particularly with the remote operation, you can imagine taking someone who normally would have to sit in the cab out in the heat, out in the dust and put them into a nice air-conditioned worksite, maybe it's in an office building that's a few miles away, maybe it's across town,” he says. “…If you put somebody in there, they're a lot more comfortable. They're more likely to stay on the job; so there's less job turnover. It's safer.”

He notes that operators can also be more productive, potentially working several different jobsites. When facing wait time on one site, the operator could work a robotic excavator at another site in the meantime.

As for the labor shortage, Brewer sees the robotic equipment as a way to attract a new generation of workers and also train them much quicker and easier. “You can learn the SRI system in 20 minutes and be digging,” he says. “…Because the controls are so much more intuitive, it doesn't require nearly as much muscle memory to perform it.”

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“No more blind spots”

The hardware for the robitification kit is all bolted on to the excavator.

On the top of the excavator’s canopy is a light beacon that lets people around it know it’s on. Stereo cameras are positioned on the canopy top. They are dust- and water-proof and feed a 360-degree view to the operation and safety systems. 

“For the safety system, it means there are no more blind spots for the machine,” Brewer says. It also gives the operator kind of an X-ray vision in that they can see people that might normally be obstructed by the machine. The cameras provide 3D views with depth perception. When wearing the VR goggles, you can see all around the excavator, and when you move your head, it shows the actual geometry of what’s around you.

The hardware, which also includes sensors, runs off the excavator’s battery and recharges itself as the excavator runs.

SRI hasn’t completed distance testing with the remote operation yet, but the wireless joystick controls worked at least about 100 yards away, and the VR setup, which uses the internet, was tested at about 20 miles away.

“Sci-fi stuff”

SRI wants to do more testing of the robot on actual construction sites.

“We're really encouraged by the feedback we've had on our YouTube movie and our early tests with actual excavator operators,” Brewer says.

SRI is not the only player in robotic construction equipment. Built Robotics has developed an aftermarket kit for excavators that enables them to autonomously dig trenches. Because SRI is a nonprofit, it will leave the commercialization of the concept to an outside company.

Brewer doesn’t know when robots will become everyday sights on construction jobs, but he believes in time they will. Had you asked him about that before the robot excavator project, he might have given a different answer.

“I probably would have just laughed at you, or said, ‘Oh, yeah, that'd be cool, maybe one day,’” he says.

“But the fact that you can put on an Oculus headset and feel like you're actually in the cab of an excavator. When you move your hand, the bucket moves. You can look to your left and see a guy hiding down next to the side of the excavator that you normally wouldn't be able to see. That's sci-fi stuff. But we've proven that’s possible.

“Who makes the products? I don't know. But I know somebody is going to be doing it now,  because SRI has actually proven it's possible and shown how to do it.”

Having developed the robot excavator, other equipment could easily be next in line.

“If there's a machine that is manually driven by a human, that's got knobs, levers, pedals, steering wheel, any one of those could be turned into a robot,” he says. “…What we've shown here is not specific to excavation. There's nothing magical about an excavator that made it a good candidate. This is where we happened to start.”

The development of the prototype excavator robotification kit was a multi-year process slowed some by the pandemic. Configuring it to other construction equipment would be a much shorter process – of months, not years.

“The beauty of the system is flexibility,” he says. “Once you've done one machine, you can do them all.”

Taking jobs from humans?

For excavator operators out there fearful robots will take their jobs, Brewer says emphatically that won’t happen with SRI’s robot.

“I asked myself, ‘Would I what I want a robot to take my job?’

“And the answer is no, which means I don't want to take anybody else's job with a robot.

“What we do want to do is, we want to increase the number of jobs for humans. That includes making it easier for people to learn so that they can get into the construction industry more easily. And for those who already have jobs, we want to make that job easier.”

He points out that summers are getting hotter and more dangerous for workers, and with a growing labor shortage, filling positions will be increasingly difficult.

“It is trying to make these jobs easier to get and more comfortable and more productive for humans,” he says. “At the end of the day, it's all about the operators and how to make their lives better.”


Check out SRI International’s video below of the robot excavator in action: