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Construction Science Fiction: Building the IRTS

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Eddie Rodriguez stepped out of the car and onto the rough gravel parking lot of a huge construction site sprouting from the black dirt of the Iowa prairie. "Wow, this is no PowerPoint show," he said to himself.

In class at Des Moines Area Community College, he had seen presentations and read articles on the construction of the Interstate Rail Transport System, or IRTS. But seeing the activity live all around him was a different experience entirely. He had just arrived with a letter of appointment from Prairie Associates and a brand-new union card from Local 234 of the Operating Engineers. "Edward J. Rodriguez, Apprentice Operator for Class 2 and 3 Robotic Equipment." Having been to operator's school and to college classes in robotics, he was, in theory, well qualified for this internship. In practice, his stomach was not so sure.

He walked toward the entrance, looking for a sign to tell him where to go and hoping he would not have to ask someone. He walked along a fence and saw the signs saying "DANGER: ROBOT OPERATING AREA" and "CONSTRUCTION AREA: HARDHATS REQUIRED." Past the fence he saw people working—probably electricians working on temporary power, from the looks of it. Then he saw a crew-cab pickup pull up and stop. He saw two men get out of the rear doors and pull tools from the bed. One man pulled a microphone from a clip on his shoulder and spoke into it, and the pickup drove off. Eddie stared; there was no driver. He realized he had just seen his first off-road robot. Everyone knew about auto-drive cars, and factories were full of robotic delivery carts that operated on fixed tracks. But that pickup truck had driven up within a few feet of people working, waited while they unloaded, and obviously driven off for some other task when the man spoke into the microphone—and all of it was done in a field of dirt, without a guideline or magnetic track anywhere.

"Looking for someone?" called out a friendly voice behind him. Eddie felt the blood rush to his cheeks as he spun around. "I'm supposed to report to personnel. I'm a new intern," he said quickly. He looked up at a smiling, bearded face atop a tall, lean body in faded blue jeans and a blue flannel shirt. The man said kindly, "I was one of them once. I'm Ed Rund, LIDAR tech."

"Eddie Rodriquez. I'm a robotics intern," Eddie responded as they shook hands. Ed Rund showed him the way to the timekeepers' shack and to the entry point for new personnel, just to the left. "I'm sure we'll see each other again!" Ed said in parting as he walked through the gate to Timekeeping.

Soon after, Eddie was once again in the land of PowerPoint. As the slide show progressed, he tried to keep his mind on the subject at hand: basic safety on a highly automated construction site. As the lights came up, the instructor said, "Ladies and gentlemen, the bottom line is this: Construction has always been a dangerous occupation. Robots have improved safety by taking people out of some of the most dangerous locations on the construction site, but robots bring special dangers of their own. So, whether you're a newbie or an old hand, pay attention out there—because we'd all like the IRTS to be the safest large construction project in history."

The IRTS. As Eddie turned in his paperwork, picked up his safety gear and headed to his work location, he thought about those four letters: The IRTS, the Interstate Rail Transportation System. Some thought it a crazy idea, but Eddie knew that someday he would tell his grandchildren with pride that he had been there at the start. That he had helped build a system that changed the way Americans moved. "Someday I'll be the old man on the History Channel, just like those old guys talking about building the Hoover Dam or the interstates," he thought. "This is going to be great—as long as I don't screw it up."

The IRTS was a grand idea for reducing oil consumption during long-distance travel. As big as the interstate highway system back in the day, the plans for the IRTS touched three decades. It called for more than 100 new powerplants; tens of thousands of miles of rail would be laid in the right-of-way of the current interstate highway system. Thousands of automated entry points would allow robotic auto carriers and cargo cars to enter and exit the system autonomously. Automobiles and container loads would drive up onto the carriers and automatically be integrated into a "train" already in motion. Each carrier would pull its power from the electric third rail, under the control of a coordinating computer system that would unite each carrier with others to save fuel and reduce congestion. The powerplants would be a variety of types and sizes and include nuclear, coal, solar and wind. The efficiency of the electric carriers moving on rails would be much greater than automobiles and semitrucks on concrete.

He'd seen the videos with renderings of happy people relaxing, eating, even getting out of their cars for a stretch while the carriers whizzed along the smooth new rail. Of course, back in the 1950s, artists had painted pictures of those same happy people whizzing along a perfectly smooth interstate highway system with never a bump or a lane closure in sight. Nothing was ever quite as perfect as the pictures, but the interstate had changed the way Americans traveled—and the IRTS would change it again.

In the following weeks, Eddie learned all sorts of little tricks for operating robots in the difficult environment of a dusty, uneven and constantly changing construction site. Most of the time he operated the humble trencher named "the Doughboy." The Doughboy looked very much like an ordinary hydraulic trencher of years past, but it followed a line in a CAD file. It trenched not to a depth but to an elevation, raising and lowering the bar as required to make a level bottom or a sloped bottom, as needed. It even knew how to turn corners, as long as they weren't too tight or in tight spaces.

The most common problem was loss of location data. The robots used GPS, of course, and the IRTS site was flooded with real-time kinematic GPS data signals, but the signals were not perfect everywhere, and sometimes equipment could not get a fix. When it could not figure out what to do, the Doughboy would yell for help.

That's just what he was doing now, blinking his light and calling Eddie on the radio. "Eddie Rodriguez, this is trencher unit TR117369, the Doughboy. Problem report: Stopped—loss of signal."

Eddie snapped out of his reverie and back to the present. The concrete printers were truly amazing machines, and it was easy to get distracted. He had been watching them build a utility service house. It was not a particularly interesting building, with its windowless walls and only two doorways, but it was still amazing to see the printers lay the concrete layer by layer—first, a plain foundation with cable entrances and races formed in. Some had intricate latticework to support the layers above, to be broken out once the job was finished, forming a faux-brick facade in the wall with the doorways. Even the mounting points for door hardware formed right into the concrete.

But now his trencher needed attention. They were digging a trench that passed under a large, curved box culvert, and the trencher needed a LIDAR signal while under the culvert. He had positioned a portable unit to get a good signal for the north side of the culvert; the Doughboy had made it more than halfway through to the south side before stopping. Eddie spoke into his microphone: "Ten-4, hold in safe mode." Then he pulled out his pad computer and brought up the control application for the LIDAR unit. He sent the LIDAR unit to its next station.

It started moving, scanning as it went and referring to its stored map. Just outside the south entrance to the culvert, it stopped, verified its position with the GPS and LIDAR stations nearby, and began transmitting location information again. A message popped up on the pad and a voice message came to Eddie's radio: "Eddie Rodriguez, this is Tracked LIDAR unit TL2256898, the Lightboy. Report: Move complete—in position; transmitting."

Eddie brought up the trencher's control application and restarted the work. Then he breathed deep and smiled. His little team was not much compared to some of the earth-moving giants or the building printers. He knew he had a long way to climb to the top of his profession. But he was here, and he was part of something amazing.

HARRIS

Rich Harris is a civil engineer and computer programmer who is interested in the use of information technology to improve the safety and efficiency of the construction process. He resides in Rolla, Mo., and is employed at the U.S. Geological Survey in Rolla. A 1989 graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Harris recently attended Iowa State University, where his studies included automated machine guidance and new tools for planning and estimating.

To see all of the stories in ENR's Imagining Construction's Future science fiction collection, click here.

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