This ex-Googler is bringing self-driving excavators to construction sites

Key Points
  • Built Robotics has a fully autonomous skid steer working at its San Francisco headquarters.
  • The start-up just raised $15 million to hire engineers and get the product to market.
  • Built expects to start with residential construction projects in 2018.
CNBC first look: Built Robotics autonomous excavator
CNBC first look: Built Robotics autonomous excavator

Noah Ready-Campbell's first job out of college was at Google. It was 2010, the year the company touted its plan -- or then, what seemed like a far-fetched dream -- to build self-driving cars.

"They announced it and everyone looked at each other and we were like, why are we even talking about this," Ready-Campbell, who's now 29, told CNBC. "There's no way it's going to work."

Seven years later, the technology is working. In fact, it's so far along that in California more than 40 companies have licenses to test autonomous vehicles, with the trucking industry not far behind.

Ready-Campbell, whose dad was a general contractor, is getting in on the action and taking advantage of the dramatic advances in automation to go after construction. For the past two years, he's been developing software and sensors that can turn off-the-shelf excavators into robots that can dig holes with precision for hours without a break.

From a small dirt field in a sparsely populated part of San Francisco, Ready-Campbell's 10-person start-up, Built Robotics, has been stealthily operating a retrofitted skid steer, directing it via a computer program to move around dirt.

Built Robotics co-founder Noah Ready-Campbell.
Andrew Evers | CNBC

The software allows a contractor to geofence the project so the machine can't go rogue. Then you program in the exact parameters and where to move the dirt.

If Built Robotics is a success, some job displacement is inevitable. But Ready-Campbell said there's currently not enough skilled labor to fulfill all the demand for new roads, dams and bridges, and much of the work is dangerous or tedious.

"I've talked to some operators and they've said there are parts of my job that are really dangerous and there parts of my job that are really boring," Ready-Campbell said. "If you can have a robot do those things and I can focus on the parts that really take human judgment, then that's good for me."

Built Robotics geofence
Andrew Evers | CNBC

Ready-Campbell said it's too soon to say how the technology will be priced. He's optimistic that there are multiple ways to make money, whether it's selling the sensor kits to companies like Caterpillar and John Deere for their machines, selling to contractors for retrofits or renting out the technology for projects.

Carl Bass, the former CEO of Autodesk and a roboticist in his spare time, first checked out the Built Robotics technology about nine months ago, when he visited the start-up's headquarters. It's not much of an office. Rather, it's a white tent with a few work stations, a weight-lifting area, a couple couches and a coffee maker.

"As somebody who's seen a lot of start-ups, this one may take the cake as far as the proverbial garage," said Bass, who's now a Built Robotics investor and board member.

'Better and cheaper'

Bass knows the construction industry well from his 24 years at Autodesk, whose AutoCAD software is used by architects and engineers. He was impressed with the retrofitting technology and with the idea that this technology can help contractors save money.

"They're going to people and saying we're betting we'll do it better and cheaper than anybody else," Bass said. "They're not going out and saying you have to buy a $40,000 machine from me."

Caterpillar and Deere have some of their own autonomous machinery efforts at work, from mining and hauling equipment to mowers. But Bass said that just as GM and Ford are partnering with technology companies for their self-driving car efforts, the traditional heavy equipment makers will do the same in construction.

The company just raised $15 million in a funding round led by NEA, which will go toward hiring engineers and getting the product ready for commercial adoption. Peter Thiel's Founders Fund is also an investor.

In addition to speeding up hiring, Ready-Campbell said he'll use some of the new money to buy more machines like excavators and bulldozers. He's also got a new building on the way for his team to work more comfortably.

The 1,400 square foot office will be parked in the driveway.

"We're upgrading to an office trailer," Ready-Campbell said.