If you’re still wrapping your head around the idea of self-driving cars, get ready for something that might seem even wilder: self-driving construction equipment exists, and it’s already out there digging away on job sites.
We first wrote about Built Robotics back in 2019, when the company was in the early stages of firing up its autonomous excavators. Within months, they’d be starting to expand their efforts to other construction equipment like dozers and loaders.
But as the pandemic sent everyone at Built HQ home, the company knew it had to change things up. Quickly shifting any company to remote presents challenges. But a company working on massive autonomous robots? They had to adjust their approach.
“We wanted to really just tighten our focus,” Built founder Noah Ready-Campbell told me. So they honed in on the part of the business that already seemed to be working: excavators. Specifically, using excavators to autonomously dig trenches.
“You need trenches on almost every type of construction,” says Ready-Campbell. “It’s very repetitive, but accuracy matters a lot. You need to make sure that you’re at the right depth; if you go too deep, you risk destabilizing the trench walls and then it’s not safe for the people helping to install the pipelines or cables.”
Built doesn’t build the excavator itself — companies like Cat and John Deere locked down that part of the equation years ago. Instead, Built provides an aftermarket add-on it calls the “exosystem,” which it says can add autonomy to “any excavator.” They charge $3,000 per machine per month for the exosystem, plus per-hour usage fees that vary based on location.
Is a massive self-driving excavator safe for people to work around? Ready-Campbell beams when I ask. After over 13,000 hours of operation, he says they “still have a perfect safety record. I’m really proud of that.” He outlines an “eight-layer safety system,” which includes things like a geofence that automatically shuts the robot down if it leaves a specific area, wireless e-stop buttons around the job site and hardwired e-stops on the excavator itself, and computer vision that constantly scans for people and obstacles around the machine.
This round, a $64 million Series C, was led by Tiger Global and backed by Built’s existing investors at NEA, Founders Fund, Fifth Wall, and Building Ventures. This round brings Built’s total funding to $112 million.
We stopped by Built Robotics’ San Francisco headquarters back in 2019 for a look at their hardware. This video is a bit out of date now (they’re moving away from using lidar, for example), but it’ll still give you an idea of what these things look like in motion:
Meanwhile, here’s the company’s own promo video that shows what their kits look like today: