Skynet Will Have Bobcats

There are so many autonomous devices nowadays that can run Skynet Inside(TM) that it’s hard to keep track. But one was still missing: the versatile Bobcat. When we say “Bobcat”, we mean track loader — it’s just one of those things that the name and the brand stoke together so strongly that it’s hard to actually recall the technical name. A company by the name of Built Robotics is betting on autonomous track loaders as being a big part of the future of construction.

The tractor can navigate, excavate, and carry a 1,000 pound load with 1 cm precision using its LIDAR, specially designed to work with high-vibration, high-impact environment of construction excavation. Additionally, the lasers also allow the robot to measure the amount of material it has scooped up. But the precision does not come from the LIDAR alone. To position the robot, Built Robotics uses augmented GPS, which combines an on-site base station and GPS satellites to produce accurate location data.

It is supposed to be completely autonomous: given a location and holes to dig, it can plan and execute the work. It resembles a self-driving car, but the challenges are actually quite different. Cars are mean to drive around and reach a destination without touching anything. Like the CEO of Built Robotics says:

“If a car is changing the environment around it, then something’s gone really wrong.”

By contrast, the ATL (Autonomous Track Loader) is meant to do just that: to change the surrounding environment. Luckily, there is no morning traffic to complicate the task. Here’s the company teaser:

In addition to spyder web drones, drone swarms and robot lawnmowner, Skynet will definitely dig having some ATLs.

[via Wired]

40 thoughts on “Skynet Will Have Bobcats

    1. Unless that skidsteer runs on fairy dust you’d go broke as an owner operator of that machine taking all day to dig one hole.

      Notice all the dust? Does somebody stop the machine every 15 minutes to clean the sensors? I bet the real reason they keep cutting the scenes and never showing a complete machine load/dump cycle is that it doesn’t work well or is stupidly slow.

      I’d be impressed if they made machines that had encoders that would stop operators from hitting their own tracks or riggers on excavators or allow them to dig a perfect flat bottom trenches at grade.

  1. Interesting. How much does it cost to equip a bobcat with one and what is its MTBF and what does it cost to repair. It’s clearly something no one can repair outside of a factory rep being flown out to a construction site for at least 5 figures.

    And how easy is it to A manned unit, all it takes is verbal instructions. It has to be very easy and fast. Like under a minute.

    1. i would guess a similar interface to autonomous farm vehicles, but those generally are sent on routes that take all day or all night because plowing is predictable and takes a long time. Maybe you could have a fleet of auto Bobcats do the predictable parts of a project and keep a manned one around for miscellaneous stuff like “oops this bale of wire is supposed to be over there”.

  2. It’s productivity looks atrocious, so many passes in just that short video where the bucket is basically skidding. So much of operating an earthmover comes back to the intuition of the operator and ‘felt’ feedback to the operator through the machine, to read the ground conditions and how the machine is cutting, and adjust the digging load on the machine on the fly. There’s so much micro-variation in the toughness of the ground that you sort of build a map in your head of the ground conditions and work based on that, and I can’t imagine how that could be algorithmically controlled for. I mean, sometimes it just comes down to how the cut sounds to you more than any other factor.

    I can imagine this technology being applied much more successfully on much bigger machines – Cat D9+ sized machines doing bulk earthmoving where sheer horsepower and the scale of material being shifted negates the micro-conditions that apply to detail excavation. But a skidsteer scale machine really isn’t optimized for, nor does it have the power margins, for the type of work necessary to justify this kind of technology.

    1. Re: underpowered. I totally buy that. Having only driven a bulldozer once, and maybe it was an old relic, but you could feel when you hit wet/strong patches in the ground, not to mention roots or rocks.

      Re: productivity. If there’s no person involved, it doesn’t have to be high, right? Maybe this is the Roomba of Bobcats. (Of course, there’s fuel being wasted here, and maybe there’s a schedule to adhere to, and etc.) But maybe?

      1. Fuel burnt is money spent. Engine and hydraulic pump time is maintenance, and a man has to come out on site and do that. Pins, bushes, seals, hardfacing on the bucket, the tracks, they all have finite hourly lives and need to be replaced at some point. The machine has to be productive to pay off the financing, so it would have to be at least as productive as is commensurate with the reduction in operating costs due to the lack of an operator.

        The argument could be made that it can make up for a lack of productivity due to unattended running allowing it to work many more hours a day, but there’s no way in hell any insurer will allow that thing to run unattended, and noise ordinances in most of the locations where a skidsteer is going to be a practical choice for the work to be done will limit its operation to daylight hours.

    2. There is certainly a lot of work do, but imagine what could happen if you scaled this out with 10’s or 100’s of them… It might not be as efficient as single human driver, but you take a fleet of these to a site and you could potentially do many of the jobs of a larger vehicle or they could do a job that would take weeks traditionally in hours or days.

      1. Increasing the number of them decreases the efficiency even further, because you increase the amount of maintenance, supervision, and capital cost, over a single much larger machine. Any such job is better completed by larger machine/s.

      2. Nah, you’re forgetting how construction companies work. If they had 100, they’d take 100 contracts and park one at each site, moving 5 guys from one to the other every couple of days over a period of years.

          1. Though on the roadways I blame the planners, they should know by now to put in an extra lane each side to create a coned off parking area for a front end loader and a porta-potty.

  3. A few things come to mind when viewing a commercial like this:

    – Electronics spec: (Automotive spec: -40 deg C to +85 deg C, it is a hard task.) EMC/EMI
    – Mechanical: Random vibration 15G/IP68/IP69k

    These are often not met on build like these. Most systems use consumer spec components for automotive builds.
    To add to the problem: A analog camera monitor with automotive specs costs €750,-. Digital for €1200,-.

    And now there is the ISO26262, Functional safety standard. I’ve been reading up on this and it will be a hard task to implement.

  4. What does this “Bobcat” do with an immovable object? I drove one, a real Bobcat, probably serial number 00001, many years ago. Trying to lift something like a huge boulder or tree stump would tip the machine forwards. There was no seat belt (it was that old!) and the operator would pitch forwards, smashing his head into the roll cage. I wore a hard hat and “used” it a lot. No permanent drain bamage, though.

    Does this device detect imminent inversion? Or can it right itself from being flipped upside down?

  5. I work for Bobcat….please don’t use bobcat to just mean any old loader. Bobcat is a trade name. The correct term is compact track loader or skid steer loader. I know..semantics…ugh.

    Rant over. I don’t think Bobcat(the manufacturer) has any plans yet for fully autonomous loaders. However there units coming up with self operating features, such as self returning arms that will remember the last set height and return to it…can’t be far from that to full robot controls.

    As mentioned above, I hope they have graceful failout programming for “immovable objects” and overbalance conditions. I worked in underground telephone/power construction for many years before becoming a machinist at Bobcat. I’m not so sure I would trust a fully auto loader on my worksite. Just to many things that can go wrong/change that a computer can’t cope with as smoothly as a human. I think it will still need at least one human “overseer” for each 2-3 of them.

    1. Indeed, a skid-steer loader is not necessarily a Bobcat.

      As for automatically remembering parts of the task, that feature has been available for centuries or perhaps millennia. How? Horses. We had one of our horses hauling logs, and she generalized from a single instance the point at which the next logs were to be dropped. Positioned correctly withing two or three inches. Horses working in logging can snake logs out of the forest unattended.

    2. I know Bobcat has to try to defend the trademark, but at this point that’s only slightly easier than Kleenex defending theirs.
      I was about to comment, pointing out that most are skid steer, not tracked and didn’t even think to point out that they’re not all Bobcats. I guess that defines success in a way that really irritates the trademark lawyers. :)

        1. No, no, no. The competition would be greatly pleased if “Bobcat” were not a trademark. They could all sell bobcats without getting nastygrams from the Bobcat Company.

          The official word from the company (right there on their website):
          Bobcat®, the Bobcat logo and the colors of the Bobcat machine are registered trademarks of Bobcat Company in the United States and various other countries. Use of the registered trademark is limited to Bobcat Company and authorized Bobcat equipment dealers.

      1. Oddly I have heard another major brand also used generically for “skid steer loader”. The guy who did pronounced it as if it were one word, “new(h)olland”, the ‘h’ almost completely elided.

        I also hear people say “skid steer” or “skid loader” without regard to whether the machine has wheels or tracks.

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