Brazilian Contractor Initiates Semi-Autonomous Operations in High-Risk Areas

January 15, 2021

Customer Profile: Founded in 1958, Construtora Barbosa Mello (CBM) is an engineering and construction company based in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil. With an emphasis on infrastructure, the company specializes in industry, logistics, water/sanitation, energy and social infrastructure projects for private entities.

 Business Challenge: Perform engineering services in areas of high risk to human life.

 Solution

 Benefits

  • Keeps machine operators out of high-risk areas
  • Near real-time project management
  • Demonstrated fully integrated air/land data solution
  • Improved accuracy/modeling and material management
  • Allowed controlled operations of earth movements

For over 60 years, Brazil-based Construtora Barbosa Mello (CBM) has been integral to the development of its home country’s infrastructure. Founded in 1958, the engineering and construction company specializes in industry, logistics, water/sanitation, energy and social infrastructure projects for private entities. Its multi-decade success is largely due to its focus on continuous process improvement. The construction industry in Brazil has faced similar challenges as other parts of the world in the way of labor shortages, shorter timelines and tighter margins.

Bruno Amaral Ribeiro, Head of Innovation and Supply Chain with CBM, said, “A couple years ago, our executives decided to re-assess all the advancements in technology, particularly aerial photography, 3D and machine control to drive efficiency and quality outcomes, despite industry challenges.”

Of note, CBM has been the region’s top user of GNSS over the last decade. In 2018, executive leadership put in place another stepped transition to adapt and adopt technology, a shift that would be particularly valuable in 2019 when the company was contracted by a mining company to perform engineering services in areas of high risk to human life throughout Brazil.

Ribeiro said, “The quantity of material removal is not the problem—the biggest challenge in this effort is to keep operators out of the machines and offsite, as some of these areas are at risk.”

Working closely with SITECH Brazil and Trimble, CBM developed a fully integrated survey and engineering process that relies on drones for capturing as-built conditions and monitoring progress along with the operation of offsite, remote controlled excavators, dozers, trucks and motor graders—the first such solution in the world.

Ribeiro is quick to say that the goal of the project is not to demonstrate technology—but to find a way to complete a complex job with assured accuracy, efficiency and safety. He confirmed, “Out of necessity, we’re transforming conventional methods and mindsets. It’s a renewed focus on people and processes—and the digital transformation is the vehicle to make this happen.”

The Set Up

For the project, CBM partnered with SITECH Brazil to facilitate a digital transformation that would support the removal of materials while keeping operators out of harm’s way.

The engineering solution incorporates four key components:

  • A local network to allow remote control of the machines; transmit design data to the machines; and to get GNSS corrections to the machines
  • Trimble Stratus drone mapping and analytics platform
  • A control center for remote operation of unmanned equipment
  • 3D controlled equipment

Each site will be equipped with an IT infrastructure that includes a closed-circuit television CCTV system, redundant outdoor LAN and WAN links, and an image backup system.

Guilherme de Souza Bechara, project manager with CBM in charge of facilitating the projects, said, “We developed an approach that puts our operators in a remote operations control center, safe shelters located about 1 km from the sites. Within these shelters, the operators drive the excavation and loading of materials just like they would normally, except in front of monitors.”

In the control center, each operator has real-time Wi-Fi cameras to visualize the work area as well as control of the various pieces of equipment. The equipment, excavators, dozers and motor graders, are equipped with 3D guided machine control systems, either Trimble GCS900 or Trimble Earthworks.

Survey-Grade Accuracy

While the project is in progress, the process is firmly in place. Every site activity requires multiple machines—sometimes up to 17—operating at the same time.

Prior to the beginning of every operation, the site is mapped with the Trimble Stratus drone mapping and analytics platform to deliver a detailed topo map. While CBM has used drones to facilitate aerial surveys for a few years, the company has not previously used the technology to this level of precision.

Bechara added, “Using Trimble Stratus, we are able to achieve centimeter accuracy. The time to capture as-built conditions is much faster. Conventional methods would have required us to set five or six points on the ground and then use total stations to develop the topo maps—that’s not possible for the high-risk areas. We’ve found that the aerial photogrammetry method is safer, faster and just as accurate.”

The drone will be used throughout every project, flying at least once a week, loading the projects on to the equipment, tracking the progress and updating volume calculations and models.

Once the survey data is ready, CBM uses Trimble Business Center to build a 3D model that is then used to develop a plan of action, determine quantities of material volumes that need to be removed, and to send to equipment in preparation for remote operation.

Controlled Cleanup

When the model is developed and delivered to the equipment on the jobsite, CBM’s attention shifts to the control center. Currently, the company has five control ‘rooms’ near the first site. Sometime in the next year, the company will have three semi-autonomous operations up and running.

At any one site, Bechara said, “Our operators are seated at four stations side-by-side within the control center, so they can communicate activities and see what each other is doing. Every operator has experience with 3D. CBM has also started a project to remove all of the drivers from the jobsite, concentrating all operators in the same place in Belo Horizonte.”

When asked about training and education to ensure smooth operations, Bechara reinforces that all of the operators are very experienced with the machines and working in 3D. “The challenge is to do their job with a joystick,” he said. “When they’re in the machine, they can see activity on the screen and out the window, and feel how the machine reacts with the material. In the control center, they have to rely just on what they can see, but the system is very intuitive.”

Ribeiro added, “Our success is really not a just technology issue—it’s a coordination challenge. We want our operators to have the right tools and training to communicate and collaborate the material removal with ease and efficiency.”

When asked how the remote operations are working thus far, both Bechara and Ribeiro are highly optimistic. Bechara concluded, “Remember, we don’t have any other way to do this job safely. It’s really 3D machine control that makes it possible to remotely operate the equipment. That technology is the enabler.”

With the people, process and equipment in place, the projects currently assigned by the client are underway with a goal of simultaneous completion in the next five or six years.

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