The International Union of Operating Engineers has plenty of big toys at its training center in Crosby, Texas, but one that began rolling across the 265-acre campus last week is an oddity. The modified Caterpillar 336 excavator can use onboard computers and sensors to perform by itself some of the work the center trains human operators to do, such as digging trenches for gas pipelines or wind turbine foundations.

The IUOE’s new robotic excavator is the result of an unusual partnership with Built Robotics, a San Francisco startup that sells a box that can enable a backhoe or bulldozer to pilot itself for some tasks. It contains a high-powered computer, motion and angle sensors, and a laser scanner called a lidar commonly used in self-driving cars.

Although Built’s product is designed to remove workers from the cab of construction equipment, IUOE’s director of construction training, Chris Treml, says the union wants to train its members to work with the technology. “Operating engineers are always on the cutting edge of technology,” he says.

People at a computer screen
After construction workers describe an excavation using GPS coordinates, the vehicle can drive itself across a site to its starting point and go to work.
Courtesy of Built Robotics

The IUOE was founded in 1896 and its logo features a steam gauge with the needle at 420 pounds per square inch, the operating pressure of some steam engines. Its training center teaches members to use remotely operated robotic equipment such as drones and mini-cranes, as well as fine-grade GPS equipment to guide construction vehicles to grade dirt at precise angles.

Treml says members now need to get familiar with autonomous construction equipment, because it too is set to become a standard part of the industry. “The last thing I want to see is people losing their jobs,” he says. “But this is something that’s out there and it’s going to be part of our industry, and so we want to be a part of it.” Built plans to help IUOE expand its fleet of autonomous vehicles over the coming year.

An autonomous excavator digging a pile of dirt
While a vehicle is in autonomous mode, a single worker needs to stay on hand in case of problems.
Courtesy of Built Robotics