by ROB McMANAMY, with MIKE HRYMAK for Builtworlds

More than 100 tech enthusiasts, unmanned vehicle operators, equipment innovation leaders, engineering students, and even just the drone-curious all flocked to BuiltWorlds on TechWeek Tuesday night, making Robots to the Rescue our most popular partner event since Chicago's first AEC Hackathon in March.

Co-sponsored by the Heartland Chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), in conjunction with Techweek Chicago, the event treated attendees to quad-copter demonstrations by Chicago-based RoboAriel and a trio of fascinating presentations from special guests NavistarPrecisionHawk, and Komatsu America. The threesome provided ongoing and near-future glimpses of driverless trucks and dozers, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and the Big Data that will tell all of them of what to do, and what information to collect while they do it.

"The evening was a huge success!" gushed Katy Glynn, director of membership development for AUVSI Heartland. "This was a fantastic opportunity for our members to engage with the innovative technology community in Chicago, as well as for BuiltWorlds' followers to familiarize themselves with unmanned systems' current and future role in the built environment. We hope there will be ongoing crossover and engagement between our organizations."

That seems highly likely.

Said BuiltWorlds managing director Matt Abeles after the event, "We were thrilled with tonight's turnout, and feel that it is just another validation of the key role that we are playing in connecting the built environment to the technology that is already transforming it."

Speaking to a capacity crowd that included reps from Caterpillar Inc.Berglund Construction, theChicago Architecture FoundationWalsh ConstructionVortex UAS, the Museum of Science & IndustryHard Hat HubPeter Ellis New CitiesNorthwestern University, and a carload of students from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Navistar GM David Hillman set the uplifting tone. “We’re bringing technology into our space in a way that will enable our people to be their best,” he said, describing how the international trucking giant is developing a driverless fleet not to replace drivers, but to help them.

"Think of it like the automatic pilot function on an airplane," he explained. "No one is flying in a jet that has an empty cockpit. For years, that technology has been helping pilots to do their work, and the public is fine with that."

For his part, Thomas Haun, VP of Strategy and Globalization for PrecisionHawk, Raleigh NC, wowed the crowd with some mind-blowing statistics about the ongoing, sky-rocketing popularity of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones. "In the U.S. alone, 30,000 drones could fill our skies in just the next five years," he said. "As of the end of 2013, one million drones already had been sold worldwide for recreational and commercial use."

Dispelling the military and sci-fi notions of unmanned bombers and robot predators, Haun noted how his firm's products are often used in life-saving roles, supporting search and rescue operations, and delivering food and medical supplies in emergency response to natural disasters. "We believe UAVs are the future of information-gathering technology," said Haun.

Autonomous vehicles for earthmoving and other functions already are an option in some global markets where labor shortages are pushing greater tech creativity. "We are immensely proud of our autonomous hauling vehicles," noted a smiling Goran Zeravica, distributor development manager for Komatsu America, based in Rolling Meadows IL. "For example -- and we have done this demonstration many times -- we can put a 12-oz can of Coke on the ground, one inch from the tire of one of our (autonomous) vehicles. It can start up, deliver its load, go through the whole cycle, and then come back and stop right next to the can again."

At the end of the day, it is all about delivering the most value to the customer, he said. "So I challenge all of you, when you leave from here tonight, to think about how these stories that we are presenting tonight, these technologies, can be used for your customers, your vendors, and your partners," added Zeravica.

Indeed, as evidenced by the night's networking, both before and after the presentations, the technologies on hand already seemed to be bringing potential partners together who only hours earlier had been strangers. "That's why I like coming to these events," said Kyle Wright, a project engineer and BIM/VDC specialist with Walsh Construction. "The information that you offer here always seems to be something that we are very interested in." .

For more such info, watch the full 'Robots to the Rescue' presentations, to be posted soon at BW-U!