Komatsu is the world’s second largest construction company, a venerable Japanese brand with 94 years of history that sells forklifts and bulldozers to customers around the globe. But in its home country, Komatsu has been struggling with an aging population, a trend that has left few young workers available to operate its machines.
As Japan ramps up new construction in preparation for hosting the 2020 Olympics, experts believe it will face a serious obstacle. "The labor shortage in the construction industry could reach a crisis level in the next few years," Martin Schulz, an economist at Fujitsu Research Institute in Tokyo, told Bloomberg.
To get around this problem, Komatsu has begun creating a new service it calls Smart Construction. A team of robotic vehicles scoops rock and pushes dirt without a human behind the wheel. They are guided in their work by a fleet of drones, which map the area in three dimensions and update the data in real time to track how the massive volumes of soil and cement are moving around the site.
The drones are built by an American startup, Skycatch, and today it revealed that Komatsu is one of the principal investors in a new $25 million round of funding that the company plans on using for global expansion and R&D. The partnership will power an entirely new line of business for Komatsu: Instead of selling construction equipment to its customers, it can lease them out for a job, and use a staff of remote operators and autonomous vehicles to complete the work. One or two lightly trained humans are still required on site to take control if something goes wrong.
Before switching to drones, Komatsu had been experimenting with autonomous dump trucks, bulldozers, and excavators, but they lacked the ability to see and understand the environment around them with enough precision to be useful on their own. Komatsu would use teams of human surveyors to create extremely detailed maps of the job site, a process that left a lot of room for improvement. "Because the terrain survey could not be conducted with high accuracy, what results in many sites is a 20 to 30 percent margin of error in soil volume after the construction is complete," says Chikashi Shike, an executive with Komatsu’s Smart Construction division.
With Skycatch drones, Komatsu says it has dramatically reduced that margin of error while dramatically cutting the time it takes to complete a sitemap. "With the former, traditional method, it takes about two weeks, on average, to survey a certain piece of land," says Kenishi Nishihara, a project manager with the Smart Construction division. "Meanwhile with Skycatch it can be completely down within one day, or even 30 minutes."
Skycatch is based in Silicon Valley, but has decided to focus its business almost entirely on Japan. "The regulations in the United States make it difficult to operate in a fully autonomous manner, and so that makes it tough to get the full value out of drones," says Skycatch CEO Christian Sanz. Of course, not every country is facing such dramatic labor shortages. "In Japan, there is a clear recognition, and appreciation, of the work these drones can do," says Sanz. "In other places, people are still cautious about collaborating with robots to do jobs that were typically handled by humans."