Fascination with excavators. There’s no doubt about it. There is a very odd attraction to heavy construction equipment. Most mothers and fathers know this from their own experience. But children are not the only ones who are attracted to excavators. After all, there are a growing number of excavator sites where novices learn how to use the construction machines under expert instruction – and then dig a hole themselves. For many, this is a childhood dream come true. Driving an excavator makes you happy! Of course, this romanticized idea barely corresponds to the hectic routine on the construction site.
But this somewhat glorified fascination with excavators is precisely what laid the foundation for the up-and-coming Austrian start-up Sodex Innovations. The three founders (Ralf Pfefferkorn, Raphael Ott, and Bernhard Gantner) are currently taking the construction industry to the next level with Sodex Innovations.
The three founders met during their studies at HTL Rankweil (Federal Higher Technical Institute for Education and Experimentation). What began as a school project in 2017 is now a full-fledged company with twelve team members. It started with a vision of an autonomous excavator – and actually became reality. Starting with a miniaturized model in 2019, Ralf, Raphael, and Bernhard worked on an autonomous 2.5-tonne excavator as part of their diploma thesis. They were successful, as the following YouTube video shows.
But the three young entrepreneurs accomplished much more than just turn their vision into reality. They also managed to accumulate quite a few sponsorship and innovation awards. At the same time, Ralf, Raphael, and Bernhard gained deep insight into the construction industry – which caused some disillusionment. The trio quickly realized that the requirements for excavators vary so much depending on the application that an autonomous system would hardly be feasible at a reasonable cost. Ralf explains: “Of course, it hurt when we had to leave a lot of our work behind – but it was clear to us that we didn’t want to develop a product that didn’t meet market requirements.”
However, by now the young entrepreneurs had acquired a profound understanding of the construction industry in general – and, more specifically, excavator technology. Accordingly, it was clear to the three innovators that they would use this knowledge and experience to take the construction industry to the next level. That was the birth of Sodex Innovations.
One problem the three had identified was how to determine – and more importantly, document – excavated material on construction sites. The available tools at the time ranged from simple smartphone photos to surveying with rover systems and drones. However, surveying and documentation always required a separate work step.
A work step that is eliminated through SDX-4DVision technology. This is the name of the first system from Sodex Innovations that can be retrofitted to excavators, regardless of the manufacturer. The innovative part of SDX-4DVision lies in the fact that the construction site is automatically surveyed and the construction progress is documented during the excavation. Using laser and camera technology, the excavated material is identified and recorded with images and 38 million georeferenced measuring points. In the cloud, the consistently transmitted data is converted into 3D models by the Sodex software. This helps construction companies record and invoice their work in a complete and straightforward manner; the end customer, in turn, benefits from 100 percent transparency. Furthermore, project progress can be tracked in real time from anywhere.
By eliminating a separate work step, SDX-4DVision technology can save time and money. Even local drone flight bans – for example near airports – are no problem when the construction site is surveyed with SDX-4DVision.
Following successful testing of the SDX-4DVision technology on Sodex’ own 2.5-tonne excavator, the first 30-tonne excavator has now been equipped with the system. Sodex Innovations has found an early adopter and partner in Tomaselli Gabriel Bau GmbH. This company also wants to set new standards in the construction industry and is enthusiastically testing and using the Sodex solution. During our visit to the construction site of Hydro Extrusions in Nenzing, Austria, where a new hall with a total of 10,000 square meters of new production and office space is being built, Raphael talked to construction machine operator Günter, who is the first person in the world to work with the SDX-4DVision. The system has now been in use for a few weeks and is working perfectly.
Raphael explains: “The strain on electronic equipment in construction machinery is tremendous.” Not only is the system exposed to extreme temperatures, but also to constant vibrations, shocks, dust, and moisture, says Raphael. Correspondingly, Sodex has designed its hardware to withstand these conditions without compromise. The RM A3N AI-enabled embedded computer from vehicle computing specialist Syslogic also bears witness to this claim. The compact industrial computer is based on a GPU-supported NVIDIA Jetson Xavier NX module and makes up the core hardware component of the SDX-4DVision. The embedded computer is mounted in a small control cabinet directly on the excavator. The Syslogic computer collects and processes the laser and camera data, evaluates it, makes automatic corrections, and transmits it to the Sodex Cloud. This is where the 3D visualization takes place, which in turn serves as the basis for billing and documentation. The sensor technology is mounted directly on the excavator arm and is designed for use in harsh environments, just like the embedded computer.
Sodex Innovations combines proprietary software, sensor technology, and a combination of edge and cloud computing to create a clever computer vision system. The reason Sodex chose Syslogic as its hardware supplier is partly because Syslogic is the global leader when it comes to rugged, Nvidia Jetson-based vehicle computers. Furthermore, just like Sodex, Syslogic is committed to moving the world forward with its technology. This common goal unites the two companies. Florian Egger, sales manager at Syslogic, says: “We’re excited to be part of the Sodex success story and look forward to writing more chapters together.”
The company’s vision shows where the three founders of Sodex want to go: “Sodex’ vision is to be the world’s leading provider for tailored automation solutions for excavators!” Raphael tells us that Sodex is currently concentrating entirely on establishing the SDX-4DVision. However, the idea of the fully autonomous excavator moving to the forefront again at some point in the future seems quite realistic for the ambitious entrepreneurs.