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Construction Automation and its Humanitarian Applications

Automation is becoming an invaluable piece of the contractor’s tool belt. The construction industry is adopting new technologies to expedite activity completion times and perform tasks with numerical precision. However, there are growing concerns over the loss of construction job opportunities. Perhaps the best applications for automation are ones that keep human safety at the forefront. This can mean machines taking on tasks that pose a quantitatively high risk of incident or injury, or directly engaging in life-saving functions.

The best illustration of automation and preservation of life is within the humanitarian realm. This applies specifically to explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) and demining. Each year, mines kill thousands of non-combatants. Almost 2,500 children were killed in 2017 alone. Besides blast and shrapnel, buried explosives pose an immense psychological strain. The communities burdened by mines also face the associated developmental and economic detriments. Removal of explosive remnants of warfare (ERW) and unexploded ordnance (UXO) is critical to future development, as well as the mental and physical wellbeing of the local populations.

An international nonprofit is tackling the disposal of ERW and UXO to protect innocents. Bomb Techs Without Borders (BTWOB) is an organization composed primarily of military veterans, many of whom have explosive ordnance disposal backgrounds.

Matthew Howard, President and Co-founder, agreed to answer some pressing questions relating to automation. His background as a West Point graduate and military officer gave him the tools to perform such a critical task. After the army, he worked on the construction of data centers for a large tech company. Our conversation was an eye-opening view into EOD, and how emerging technologies will shape the world for the better.

Deadly Reminders of Conflict

New demining operations will continue to emerge after the frontlines have faded. Thanks to the efforts of dedicated volunteers, the threat can be mitigated before it ravages more households. “We’ve recently been focused on supporting explosive ordnance risk education in Nagorno-Karabakh, where Azerbaijan and Armenia had a recent conflict,” Matt explained.

For economic and social impacts, does unexploded ordnance affect everyday life? What impacts does it have on construction and infrastructure development?

“The region has had hundreds of thousands of displaced people and the threat of mines and other UXO dating back to conflicts from the mid-1990s. It’s sadly become a daily part of the lives of many people.” The tragic truth faced by BTWOB is that, “When areas are mined, they essentially become unusable to the local population. When people find items like bombs or mortars, it can become extremely disruptive to their lives.”

It should be noted that mines alone aren’t the only hidden danger. “With the recent conflict, many civilian areas were attacked, and people have found cluster bombs and other ordnance items in and around their homes and on the streets. These obviously hamper mobility and can prevent reconstruction efforts until buildings are completely cleared and neighborhoods [are] declared safe.”

Recalling warfare throughout the last century and a half, and the munitions left behind, “Anytime you’re dealing with a former conflict zone, there’s the possibility that buried items will sit for years below the ground. [They will] only be uncovered when someone digs down deep enough, such as to lay the foundation of a new building.”

Constructors face a lurking threat without thorough demining. Rubble and overgrown pastures are ruins that hold deadly reminders of war.

The Threat and its Evolution

A harsh reality for unsuspecting families, even the unseen can kill. “When we talk about mines and other UXO, it’s important to understand that sometimes items are deliberately placed to await activation by the victim, and other times items simply fail to function as designed and are left behind on the battlefield in a potentially dangerous condition.”

This randomness can blanket a large area, and the unpredictability and variety of ordnance are major risks to a demining operation: Surprise finds can include aerial bombs, artillery shells, mortars, and rockets. Like a dormant virus, “All of these items can remain in the ground for years, decades, or even centuries and remain a hazard.” With corrosion underground comes added weapon instability.

Recent conflicts include improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in increasing numbers. However, the IED trend, “Depends entirely on the belligerents. In Yemen, for example, there are both manufactured and improvised weapons being used actively, and the threats facing civilians there include landmines, IEDs, and cluster munitions dropped by aircraft,” Matt explained. IEDs are found exceedingly in asymmetric warfare.

As for the future threat of UXO, “One consistent thing about weapons manufacturing throughout the years has been the subtle arms race between those making weapons and those disposing of them. The technology going into IEDs [has] improved over the past couple decades.”

Elaborate traps and sophisticated engineering mean that attempting to disarm them may cause catastrophe. A cornerstone to disposing of a device in time is detection. Matt explains that, “One of the paradigms in the counter-IED world has been improving detection of buried IEDs, at the same time that adversaries are developing new methods to make them harder to detect.”

A battle on paper and in the lab is shaping up, as new methods and techniques are applied. “UXO and IEDs are threats in many places around the world, on nearly every continent. It’s difficult to estimate the total number of devices out there, but it is certainly in the tens of millions.” The relative ease of manufacture has allowed improvised devices to proliferate, much to the dismay of local populations and humanitarians.

Mine Action

A demining operation, or mine action, can be divided into two distinct types of activities: Land clearance through surveys, and physically clearing the mines. Drone use in the construction industry, especially for inspection and land surveying, has already been embraced. By contrast, clearing UXO by automation is an emerging technology. In both cases, removing humans from harm’s way is paramount.

Surveying is how a suspected area is first evaluated. Matt explained that for this step in mine action, “It’s best to determine that the land is safe by the most efficient means possible. [This is] to avoid spending costly resources on the arduous and time-consuming task of mine clearance. Drones can be essential for narrowing down areas where human operators are actually needed for work.”

As far as his observations in the field, “There have been amazing advances in this area but there are still many opportunities for improvement.” Thoroughly locating mines is critical to completing the operation.

Clearance by human operations is the current practice, and the specific equipment varies. “Demining groups sometimes use large machines for clearance (such as flail vehicles), but the use of these machines is dependent on local infrastructure and can raise some safety concerns,” Matt cautioned. “For example, we wouldn’t want to use a mine flail vehicle to clear mines next to a village, as the chain flail may unearth and throw ordnance items.”

Near densely-populated areas, a meticulous process involves the human eyes and a light touch. Deminers sweep the ground with detectors and probe into the earth. Clearing is done one gut-wrenching square meter and a time. “This represents the biggest opportunity for automation.” With parallel development of construction robotics, the leap to demining is another productive application.

With applications already identified, the benefits of automation would be seen immediately. “Autonomous robots that can remotely detect and accurately map sub-surface ordnance could save thousands of man-hours of dangerous work. Remote reconnaissance of the item by a robot could allow a human expert to determine an appropriate procedure for safe disposal, which could also potentially be carried out by a robot. Anytime we can remove a human operator from going hands-on, we’re increasing safety and survivability.”

Matt’s challenge to automate the deadly, tedious task of manual clearance is a call to innovators. A result of mine action is making land usable again, so that it may provide for generations to come. Secure passage provides the groundwork for future humanitarian efforts.

Automation in Construction and Demining

In the midst of a robotic arms race, construction has yet to enjoy the level of attention that manufacturing has received. Despite this, innovators are working in the field, retrofitting existing pieces of equipment, and introducing entirely new ones. Ultimately, people will remain a critical component of daily activities on construction sites. Recognizing this, some strides have been made to mechanize safety.

A prominent example, with its roots in military vehicle convoys, is a joint effort between Kratos Defense & Security Solutions and Royal Truck & Equipment. Their system consists of a truck mounted crash attenuator and a self-driving leader/follower program. Omitting the human driver from a potential high-speed crash could save many lives, while still protecting people and equipment within the mobile construction operation.

Demine Robotics of Canada is taking this programmable approach to humanitarian EOD. Fielding a robotic machine dubbed “Jevit,” remote identification, excavation, and disposal of mines is now a possibility. In January of 2020, the announcement was made that Jevit successfully conducted its first clearance of live explosives. With a single, self-contained robot able to perform the critical functions of manual mine action, there is suitability for operators of varied skill levels and backgrounds. This system could be unloaded anywhere and perform tasks for the preservation of life.

Matt’s previous construction experience informs his management of BTWOB and views on new technology. Streamlining systems and methods is the key to success in former conflict zones. “With data center construction, I’ve seen the benefits of automation—everything from document approval software, 3D/4D/5D BIM, to on-site QA/QC supported by laser-scanning robots, and drones measuring construction progress. Many of the technologies I’ve seen applied to construction are similar to the technology used (or badly needed) in the humanitarian demining space.” With sites spread across the globe, these technologies can be an asset for effective management. An international scale of operations must also account for local risks, such as logistics to and from the site.

Current bottlenecks lie on how human operators and machinery interact. “[In] demining, there isn’t much automation yet; most operational tools still require a human operator who is working remotely, and these systems have a lot of limitations.” Linking an operator and a machine seamlessly is a lofty goal for all equipment manufacturers. Removing human error in a volatile environment, such as a minefield, requires complex engineering across a myriad of fields.

As machines begin to think, they should keep us at the forefront. “Robotics and automation ultimately should serve to remove human vulnerabilities from a system and protect human operators from hazards,” Matt summarized. This is the future of humanitarianism and an industry based upon building.

Linking Two Worlds for a Better One

Sitework is the process by which the land is made ready for building. For new development in UXO-stricken locations, mine action is the first critical activity. In this sense, the construction and humanitarian missions are closely tied. The public benefit is both immediate and long-term, as the absence of explosive dangers is key to recovery. Communities once gripped by fear are allowed a chance at rebuilding with the help of an international cadre.

I asked Matt about other applications he could envision for demining equipment. Opportunities include, “[The] potential for software and robotics automation to work hand-in-hand to survey, scan/map, plan, and conduct clearance operations.” From mine action to natural disaster relief, the opportunities for inventors are endless.

To illustrate this, a Washington-based startup called DroneSeed is developing drone technology that can restore forests and grasslands ravaged by flame. The company has already received FAA approval for wildfire reforestation in six states. Landowners are also offered wildfire risk assessments to avoid potential pitfalls and understand possible vulnerabilities.

Automation can even be seen amid the conflagration. In October of 2020, a Thermite RS3 robotic firefighting vehicle arrived at the Los Angeles Fire Department. Donated by the nonprofit LAFD Foundation, it is the first of its kind in the United States.

With each innovation, we learn to interact with and shape the physical world differently. The systems with the greatest human benefit will be the most versatile for both construction professionals and altruists.

Zachary Liollio
Zachary Liollio
Zach Liollio is an inventor and transportation inspector based out of Charleston, South Carolina. His research centers on the applications of automated equipment and vehicles in the construction industry. He has a Master’s of Science from The Citadel in Technical Project Management with a focus in systems engineering management.

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