"GPR to Enable Autonomous Excavation" – RodRadar Exec's Construction Tech Forecast

A Stutsman Gerbaz-owned excavator is equipped with Rodradar's Live Dig Radar bucket.
A Stutsman Gerbaz-owned excavator is equipped with RodRadar's Live Dig Radar bucket.

Editor’s Note: This is one of three Q&As with startup leaders in the construction industry. You can read predictions in our first installment by Erol Ahmed, director of communications at Built Robotics, here. Our second installment featuring Vinay Shet, co-founder and CEO of Teleo is available here.

OEMs and private equity firms continue to team up with startups to accelerate the development of next-generation technology for the construction industry.

Those burgeoning technologies — from autonomy to AI to robotics — promise to increase safety, productivity and efficiency in field and office processes.

For this series of Q&As, Equipment World tapped a handful of startup leaders to find out what technologies are ripe to disrupt the industry and what to expect in the next five years. Those same experts also touched on some of the roadblocks to technology adoption and what contractors can do to alleviate pain points during operational changes.

Our final expert is Yuval Barnea, vice president of sales and marketing for RodRadar, the developer of Live Dig Radar, a utility-detecting excavator bucket. Here’s what he had to say:

Yuval Barnea, vice president of sales and marketing for RodRadar,Yuval Barnea, vice president of sales and marketing for RodRadar,RodRadarThere are many technologies that are already on the market but haven’t fully taken hold on jobsites. How do you expect that landscape to change in the next five years?

The construction sector is actually, for the first time ever, poised for significant advances. Specifically, within the infrastructure sector, the surge of rethinking of tactics and deployment of technologies is due to an aggressive push to embrace the industry's “50-in-5” goal to reduce by 50% underground utility strikes over the next 5 years. Achieving a truly radical drop in damage to underground infrastructure is definitely not going to be about incremental or gradual adoption of “better versions” of processes and technologies already out there; the most dramatic, measurable change will be from truly and deeply innovating and re-imagining existing processes.

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Ground Penetration Radar (GPR) technology is a great example. Along with other sensors, it has been for years deployed as part of pre-project planning phases for mapping and surveying underground infrastructure, such as gas pipes and communication lines. For the first time ever, RodRadar has integrated a unique GPR imaging technology within excavation machinery,specifically the digging bucket.

Using automatic algorithms, the operator gets real-time alerts of buried utilities during excavation without the need for off-site expert analysis, substantially increasing safety and productivity. In other words, the real-time approach “isn’t business as usual,” and game-changing innovations like this can really move the dial. If autonomy, robotics, and AI are deployed in this way — and yes, to old-school construction firms, it may be a daunting prospect — the industry will look nothing like it does today in five years.

[Watch: A Closer Look at World’s First Excavator Bucket to Detect Buried Utilities]

Companies often cite the labor shortage or safety as the biggest benefits of emerging technology. How else is technology shaping or disrupting the jobsite of the future?

Emerging technology is shaping the jobsite of the future in several ways beyond addressing labor shortages and enhancing safety.

Probably the biggest impact is in costs. Everything manual takes time. And, frankly, opens the door to human error. When you deploy a “cold thinking” AI or algorithm, you are essentially doing human work in a tiny percentage of the time, and the results are much more precise. The net result of each of these – perhaps in equal measure – is that you save money in both the work and in crisis management. Insurance rates drop, fines fade away, and unexpected delays are minimized.

Let’s use the utility infrastructure strikes again as an example. A serious strike sets off a waterfall of costs – the actual cleanup, fines, repairs to the infrastructure as well as the equipment, inspections, money you are paying to workers and equipment leases not being deployed during the recovery, and more. Imagine the drop-down effect of eliminating all these costs.

The second significant impact of technology on the job site is improved communication and collaboration between all stakeholders. As we adopt many of the tools already in use in more “cutting-edge” industries, we’ll enter a new age of real-time collaboration among team members, architects, engineers, field workers, and, of course, end-users. This means coordination, quicker decision-making, and fewer misunderstandings — all of which ultimately improve project outcomes for everyone.

[Related Content: “Holy Grail for Earthmoving": Rodradar Bucket Finds Buried Utilities]

What do you see as the biggest roadblocks for contractors when it comes to technology adoption? And what are you doing to help speed up the adoption process or alleviate some of that hesitation?

The biggest roadblocks for contractors when it comes to technology adoption are the two same hesitations as in any industry: high upfront costs and uncertain return on investment. Nobody wants to pay a lot for an experiment, and nobody wants a distraction that may not actually yield results. Combining them is, for most, simply a showstopper. And let’s be blunt — our industry is much more about buckets, not bytes. We like things we can hold in our hands, not a black box running algorithms we don’t understand. Naturally, few construction companies (aside from the very largest) have a dedicated innovation team. Most recognize a lack of technical expertise and training among the team, making it challenging to integrate and use emerging technologies confidently.

RodRadar has invested considerably in designing its disruptive technology to be easy to learn and deploy, user-friendly, and intuitive for the operator in the excavator cab. We designed it so – by keeping in mind that there is no dedicated “techie” standing by to run the system or analyze output; it’s the guy at the controls. He needs to be confident in utilizing the system, understanding every alert and message to assess actual risk so he can respond appropriately as he moves earth on a job-site. Additionally, RodRadar is unique in that we can literally tally up “just in time” utility strike avoidance episodes. It’s not theoretical - we know when you are literally about to hit that cable or pipe — so ROI can be easily measured, with full payback often in just a month after deployment.

What technology do you think will have the greatest impact on the industry in the next five years?

In the next five years, the greatest impact on the construction industry will come from the integration of technologies such as ground penetration radar (GPR) and autonomous machinery. In fact, such real-time GPR-based alerts of underground utilities during excavation are an enabler for autonomous excavation in urban environments. Deeper-looking and more precise GPR will enhance safety and efficiency by accurately detecting underground utilities, reducing the risk of accidental damage during excavation. Autonomous machinery, including drones and robotics, will automate labor-intensive tasks on the jobsite, expediting project timelines and improving productivity. These technologies, combined with advancements in AI and data analytics for project management, will transform construction sites into more efficient, safe, and sustainable environments.

What are you most optimistic about for the future of the construction industry?

We are very optimistic about the pace of change on construction sites. As we’ve said, the construction industry is a traditional one, and has been very slow to embrace innovation or change “what works.” But just the past few years have demonstrated that a new generation of workers are eager to leverage technologies here as they do in their private lives, and even veterans recognize that maintaining their value is no longer all about their experience — it rides on openness to adapt to a new age as well. Luckily, some very edgy companies – both startups as well as innovation teams of larger ones — are supplying those tools at a rapid rate. 

And this isn’t just an opinion. We do a lot of demos and watch the reactions. Operators, some of whom have worked in the field for over four decades, are shocked, then fascinated and finally delighted — rather than threatened — with newly developed disruptive technologies. Their reactions and their orders for our products make clear that, at long last, the sector is taking the leap we’ve been waiting for.