Robotic excavators get a boost with $33 million for Built Robotics

Robots could help narrow the gap between supply and demand in the construction industry.
Written by Kelly McSweeney, Contributor
Image: Built Robotics

When Built Robotics emerged out of stealth in October 2017, the company's self-driving excavators had completed a couple simple projects that included digging and moving dirt at a community garden and a California mountain bike trail. Since then, giant autonomous robots have been deployed on large commercial projects, such as digging the foundations for wind farms. The technology has also expanded to include bulldozers and skid steers, in addition to excavators. 

Today Built announced a $33 million Series B led by Next47, the new global venture fund backed by Siemens. This brings the company's total funding to $48 million. This latest round of funding will support scaling the fleet of autonomous robots, expanding into new construction verticals, and developing tools to support the next generation of equipment operators.

Robots are best at performing repetitive tasks in predictable environments, and industrial robots are typically confined to factory floors. But recently automation has been uncaged, even heading outside to work on agricultural tasks such as drones that scan fields to find weeds among crops. Heavy equipment is a bit trickier, but an ideal first job for construction robots is digging a big hole in the middle of nowhere. That's why Built's autonomous bulldozers are working on renewable energy projects in fields in Kansas and Wyoming.

"We're working on wind farm foundations in the Great Plains, which are some of the largest to date in the US," Erol Ahmed from Built Robotics tells ZDNet.

It's clear there is demand for autonomous construction equipment. Built currently has over $100 million in customer commitments. While the technology was tested on gardens and bike baths just two years ago, it's now being put to work on large commercial jobs. Customers include big players in the industry, such as Mortenson Construction, one of America's largest private companies, according to Forbes

Traditional construction equipment is already extremely expensive, with price tags of hundreds of thousands of dollars per machine. It's hard to imagine smaller contractors shelling out additional cash for fancy robots. However, Built doesn't sell machinery, they sell technology. Standard machines can be retrofitted with automated guidance systems to turn them into autonomous robots.  

Plus, Built is also partnering with Sunstate, to run a pilot program to explore ways for contractors to rent robotic equipment.  

"That's still in the R&D phase but it's an exciting way to grow rapidly into the market," Ahmed explains. "This will hopefully allow small- to mid-size contractors the ability to use robotics."

Anytime a machine replaces manual labor, people start to panic about robots stealing their jobs. The construction industry is facing a labor shortage, with nearly 300,000 job openings for construction workers in the United States last year, according to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Many construction companies have more work than they can complete. The Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) keeps a construction backlog indicator, a report that reflects construction projects that are under contract that haven't been completed yet.

Anirban Basu, ABC's chief economist tells ZDNet, "This is an important data point, as the construction industry tends to lag the overall economy by 12-18 months."

The latest report shows that despite recent slow growth in construction spending, the U.S. construction industry has continued to expand employment levels during the past year, and the average contractor will remain busy over the near term. According to Basu, "One of the reasons for relatively slow growth in nonresidential construction spending may simply be that the U.S. contracting community cannot deliver significantly more service in the context of worsening labor/skills shortages. In other words, nonresidential construction volume is already near its peak potential supply. Given that, one wouldn't expect substantial growth in construction spending even in the context of significantly stronger economic growth."

Robots could help contractors stay on schedule and keep up with demand. Automation is often used as a way to reduce costs, but in this case, it could be a strategy for increasing revenue, because busy contractors won't have to turn down work.

 "The shortage of qualified labor is an industry-wide challenge right now, and finding skilled workers is even more difficult on large-scale remote infrastructure projects. Our robotic equipment is able to shoulder some of the load by assisting with basic, repetitive tasks, freeing up human operators to focus on more complex activities," Built CEO Noah Ready-Campbell said in a funding announcement. "I'm thrilled to be working with T.J. and Next47, as well as our existing investors, in writing the next chapter of Built Robotics." 

Built's systems include sensors such as GPS, cameras, and lidar with advanced software. This robot kit can be installed on standard equipment from any manufacturer. 

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