One of the more positive news stories this year was the cooperation agreement between the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Israel. In a matter of hours following the announcement, the countries began working towards opening up their economies. The excitement was felt across the Middle East, in words of Jon Medved of OurCrowd, “Once the Sand Curtain starts coming down, there’s no stopping it.” Weeks following the statement, Medved’s firm secured a $100 million deal with the Al Naboodah merchant family of Dubai to invest in technology.
One of the biggest industries in the UAE is construction. According to most reports, almost a quarter of the world’s cranes are currently deployed on job sites scattered throughout Dubai. The desert metropolis is home to the world’s tallest buildings, including the Burj Khalifa impressively towering at 160 stories. The majority of construction workers in the Middle Eastern capital are immigrant workers lured from their home countries by large cash payouts. The building industry globally has suffered from a labor shortage for years, pre-pandemic reports estimated that close to a half million construction jobs in the United States remained unfilled. To compound matters, job sites are dangerous, in Dubai alone close to a 1,000 people have died this past decade building its 148 skyscrapers. These factors make real estate development ripe for disruption, with the most promising innovations focused on augmenting skilled labor with machines.
Last week, I discussed the opportunities for Israeli roboticists with Noam Rotem, Chief Executive of Syracuse, an autonomous crane technology startup. Rotem summed up the opportunity for Israeli entrepreneurs in light of the new accords, “I think the big advantage of the UAE is not just the total number (of cranes), but the density and their general willingness to adopt innovative tech.” He shared with me how Tel Aviv is similar to Dubai with its streets littered with cranes, “Israel is very small with the majority of its population concentrated in essentially one large urban metropolis. This makes construction sites common, and the skyline cluttered with tower cranes erecting high-rise buildings.” He continued, “Observing tower cranes, I could see that they were being operated very inefficiently – crane movement was hindered by human limitation to plot complex trajectories.” This is what led him to completely rethink how the equipment operates, essentially building an “autonomous system capable of generating the optimal load trajectory, dramatically reducing load transport time, and improving crane efficiency.”
Rotem enthusiastically explained how “Syracuse converts existing tower cranes into giant industrial robots.” To accomplish this task, Syracuse installs its hardware system directly on the crane, “to continually monitor the position of the crane, the position and dimensions of the load, and all obstacles in the construction site.” Then, the signal person on the ground uses a handled device or on a 3D model to move the machine to the precise spot. “Our system enables Level 3 autonomy, keeping the human operator as a ‘supervisor; and the standard controls available for edge cases. In the future, Syracuse will operate the crane fully autonomously,” quips the inventor. His technology has been gaining traction, “During the last few months, we have been operating a commercial Potain Tower Crane autonomously in a logistical center, alongside human-operated tower cranes. The crane was provided by our investor Skyline, the largest crane rental company in Israel, with over 200 tower cranes,” boasts Rotem. He further outlined expansion opportunities for his product, “Syracuse is initially focused on tower cranes and the construction industry, however, the core technology is suitable for autonomous operation of all types of cranes, and will be deployed in the future to mobile cranes, ship-to-shore container cranes, and industrial gantry cranes.” Currently, the team is focused on expanding its commercial deployment schedules throughout Israel. “By the end of 2021, we will launch our first commercial system, providing human-operated tower cranes with Advanced Collision-awareness capabilities to improve safety by alerting the operator of pending obstacles, stopping or diverting the crane if required. Further upgrades during 2021 will allow us to introduce a fully autonomous level 3 solution by the end of 2022,” states the founder.
Connecting cranes to the cloud is becoming big business. Just last week, another Israeli startup, Versatile, secured $20 million in Series A financing from Insight Ventures. The company uses computer vision to provide a birds eye view of the job site and crane operations, increasing safety and efficiency. As Meirav Oren, Versatile CEO, describes, “You can only improve what you can measure, and at Versatile we are just scratching the surface of what we can do to create value for our users and use data to turn job sites into controlled manufacturing with fast feedback loops.” She emphasized that the new capital will be invested in increasing its adoption and suite of AI user interfaces.
In validating the wider PropTech opportunity, I reached out to Israeli entrepreneur Guy German. Unlike Rotem, which is focused on vertical job sites, German’s startup, Okibo, is automating interior construction. I nudged him for his thoughts on the new Accords, he excitedly replies, “UAE investors understand the value of robotics and automation and gain experience.” He further stressed the close proximity is a real asset for the relationship, “Usually, Israeli startups tend to offer their developments to European and US markets. Now there is a new market, 3 hours away from Israel with massive demand for construction tech solutions. In addition, the royal families hold real estate assets that can serve as base for pilots, test cases and future clients.” German who built his robot to fabricate swimming pools, is now posed to takeover the interior space with a mobile device capable of taping, plastering, and painting at a touch of a button. “Around 50% of the current manual work performed on construction sites can be automated (regardless of prefabrication solutions). Automation increases efficiency, safety, quality of work, visibility, availability of work force, consistency and schedule predictability. The industrialization of the construction industry is inevitable,” suggests Okibo’s Chief Executive. He further outlined the ease of his solution, “Our robot is fully autonomous (scanning/modeling/path planning/execution) – it does not require a lot of training or understanding in robotics or plastering/painting. The operator (which can be anyone in the site) is basically required to fill in materials, make sure that batteries are charged, take obstacles out of the way of the robot and clean the airless spray machine at the end of the day. Although it is possible to change the robot’s plan and control it as a ‘semi-autonomous power tool’ in most cases it is not required.” German’s innovation is already making great strides, “We are currently working with our robots as a full turnkey subcontractor. The robot is performing drywall finish tasks fully autonomously and as far as we know we are the only company in the world (there are several other groups working on this task) that has demonstrated a robot that can paint a full room (4 walls) fully autonomously, continuously, no human intervention, no prior programing and no prior data provided to the robot about the job.” He predicts that in less than 24 months, Okibo “will have a product in market that will change the way drywall finish is performed for good.”
I pushed the entrepreneurs with their thoughts on how the construction industry will be impacted long-term by the pandemic. Rotem stated, “Covid-19, much like the 2008 slowdown, is expected to see many older more experienced workers retire and the younger workers transfer to other industries. That and the fact that most people don’t want to spend 12 hours and more in a small cab 500 feet above the ground means the construction industry is looking for solutions for crane operator shortages.” However, he admitted that the “industry isn’t ready yet to replace the human operator with a fully self-operating system, however companies are looking for new technologies to increase automation and efficiency and take the active operating duties from the human operator, eventually evolving into full autonomy.” German was more optimistic, “The increasing shortage of professional labor in the construction industry is the main driver of introducing smart automation… It is important to mention that we do not believe that automation in the construction industry will displace even a single person out of his or her job. It will help fill part of the labor shortage and improve team’s efficiency, productivity and quality of work. This will help get more projects to meet their schedule and increase the overall market capacity. In fact, we expect that this revolution will create more jobs to this industry and help connect the younger generation to the field.”