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Engineering & Construction

Japanese self-driving construction gear finds own way without GPS

Builder Taisei seeks labor-saving tech for tunnels and other remote locations

Taisei's T-iDraw Map technology uses lasers to plot an image of the vehicle's surroundings. (Photo courtesy of Taisei)

TOKYO -- One of Japan's biggest civil engineering groups has developed a navigation system for construction vehicles that does not rely on GPS or other satellite positioning data, allowing them to guide themselves in remote places.

Tokyo-based Taisei's technology, which uses laser sensors to make three-dimensional maps of a vehicle's surroundings, is thought to be the first of its kind developed in Japan. Its industry peers at home have made their own forays into autonomous-driving technology, but they rely on signals in the sky to guide their vehicles.

Taisei now looks to adapt the system to real-world projects in tunnels and other areas where GPS signals are difficult or impossible to reach, helping cope with a construction labor shortages by automating more machinery.

The 3D-map locates obstacles in the vehicle's way and allows it to chart detours around them. The technology was recently tried on a tracked dump truck, which drove 5 kph through a tunnel. Once the sensor-equipped vehicle travels through such a simple environment once with an operator on board, it is able to collect enough take to drive itself on later trips.

The Global Positioning System boasts worldwide coverage, but its signals can easily be blocked by mountains or tall buildings.

A tracked vehicle drives itself through a tunnel using a navigation system developed by Taisei. (Photo courtesy of Taisei)

The U.S. was in the vanguard of this technology, launching the first prototype satellite for what is now the GPS network in 1978. But China has come from behind with its own satellite positioning system, Beidou. A Nikkei analysis of data from U.S. satellite receiver company Trimble in 2020 showed the Beidou was ahead of GPS in how often it observed 165 countries.

Caught between rising demand and an aging, shrinking workforce, Japan's construction industry is under pressure to raise productivity.

Obayashi, another leading engineering group, has put robots to work at every stage of a dam project in Mie Prefecture, southeastern Japan. The company aims to be able to use autonomous driving on all construction equipment, regardless of manufacturer, by 2030.

Rivals Kajima and Takenaka have developed a remote operating system for tower cranes, used to build skyscrapers.

Beyond Japan, autonomous vehicles are also being put to work by BHP Group in Australian coal mines.

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