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What contractors should know about remote equipment operation

January 18, 2023
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Autonomous and semi-autonomous equipment are already familiar mining technologies. According to SMS Equipment's Manager of Smart Construction Kris Troppmann, we'll see signs of this trend in construction in 2023. We chatted with Kris to highlight why, where, and how the trend will emerge and what every contractor should watch for. Here are the key points from our conversation.

Semi-autonomous equipment is not about replacing people – it's about improving operations with existing staff.

Finding and retaining skilled employees has been the top pain point for construction companies for at least a decade. Supervised autonomy is not a magic bullet but a powerful tool to help utilize people more productively and, equally important, to keep operators out of harm's way when executing dangerous or unpleasant tasks.


In the semi-autonomous operation scenarios we're discussing with contractors, there will still be an operator, but that person will be operating within line of sight of the machine using a handheld device or from a laptop or simulator in a trailer or a remote site.

The three main reasons why companies are exploring supervised autonomy in construction:
  1. Safety - removing the operator from harm's way
  2. Operator recruitment and retention – making the job more accessible for recruits with less experience and more of a technological inclination
  3. Operational improvements - include predictable results, volume gains, and reduced wear and tear on the equipment.

Semi-autonomous operation technology is well established.

Autonomous and semi-autonomous control technology is far beyond the "bleeding edge" stage and is already deployed by a number of SMS Equipment customers in the mining sector. Adopters in construction will be working with mature technology and adapting it to construction scenarios.


Remote autonomy in construction will be built on the back of smart mining. There's already a lot of autonomy in mining, particularly in areas like the oil sands, where there are a large number of ultra-class trucks hauling on autonomous routes. Semi-autonomous operation is a step on that pathway, and that's what we're discussing with our construction customers.

The maturity of this technology means that there's a whole range of apps that plug into that semi-autonomous platform. That includes things like volumetric reporting and progress reporting. Customers have been pretty excited about how impactful that could be for their business.

The main challenge is not technology – it's change management.

While semi-autonomous operation looks dramatic, implementing it is not difficult – the real challenge is integrating the technology into existing operations.


The technology is already tested and fully functional, so deploying it is not going to be the difficult part of this. The main challenge and obstacle that needs to be thoughtfully considered will be people management, change management, and changes to business processes.

I recommend dividing this challenge into two buckets. First is to look at each business process, such as a hauling operation, where you want to introduce the technology and consider how each of the tasks in that process will change with semi-autonomy. Once that's established, you need to work with all the people affected by the changes and provide the necessary training and mentoring to get them comfortable with the new scope of work.

Early deployment in construction will be on established sites with repetitive operations.

Semi-autonomous operation has the strongest business case on static sites where the setup is long-term, the work is repetitive and predictable, and where much of the emerging activity will take place.


The initial use cases we see for tele-remote are sites where there's repetitive machine movement and tasks repeated repeatedly without leaving the site. Examples of this are quarries, aggregate production sites, and batch plants for concrete production.

Another important area is mining support work, where there are tailings areas. This can be hazardous work in which there have been fatalities – so you want to get that operator out of the machine and have them utilize it remotely.

The development is good news for young people entering the field.

As equipment operation transitions into the emerging field of smart construction, younger recruits who grew up with technology are already finding the trade more attractive. That development can be expected to have a growing role in the quest to attract the best talent to the industry.


When it comes to recruiting new operators, our customers have been dealing for years with the reluctance of the younger generation to choose careers in heavy equipment operation. But as a customer of mine put it, supervised autonomy incents younger people who like to play video games into the workforce. But looking deeper, the operator's job will involve more and more technology as the connected apps get more sophisticated and companies move down the path towards total autonomy. This means that employees will ultimately spend more time improving efficiency and carbon footprints and less doing dull, dirty, and dangerous work.

The bottom line:

Semi-autonomous equipment is not new, and thanks to its wide deployment in smart mining, well-established solutions are already available in construction. Contractors will need to adjust their processes and skill sets to accommodate the new technology, but plans for deployment are already on the drawing board and can be expected to accelerate over the coming months.

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