Jim Coleman reveals how robots are finding their way into the construction workflow
In 2020 Boston Dynamics and Trimble announced a strategic alliance, giving Trimble the opportunity to sell an integrated robot solution to the construction sector. As with any technological development, expectations are that robotics and autonomy, combined with disruptive developments such as the Internet of Things (IoT), 5G, Big Data and machine learning, will lead to certain roles within the engineering and construction realm changing. However, robots will not be taking over entire industry workflows any time soon.
With the introduction of any new technology to automate tasks, there is among certain groups an inherent fear that it will lead to job losses. Most initiatives that drive automation in the engineering and construction industry are geared towards raising productivity, efficiency and safety and can actually bring new jobs and new roles. The integrated Boston Dynamics/Trimble solution is no different. It is based on the Spot robot platform, a four-legged mobile robot specifically designed to navigate difficult terrain thanks to its four legs, which enable the machine to climb stairs or operate in the dirt. It has proven to be a great tool for hazardous environments in excavation or building construction, but also in other sectors that have high-risk projects. The robot is not totally autonomous as it is remote controlled by use of a tablet (and stereo cameras) as standard, but it already offers the capability to program repeatable autonomous missions. Equipped with a Trimble 3D scanner and/or a GNSS module it would have the terrain-agnostic capabilities needed in the typically dynamic setting of a construction site, giving it the possibility to navigate obstacles in order to fulfil a programmed task.
The robot can be applied to routine tasks such as daily site scans, progress monitoring, asset management, and remote support. In these cases there is direct communication with a cloud-based construction management application so the mobile technology can feed back information to the construction environment. In fact one of the main drivers behind Boston Dynamics’ go-to-market strategy for Spot, was the realisation that much of the construction sector still suffers from a data gap and is in need of technology to push efficiency of job sites. Spot will be able to provide consistent output, deliver improved efficiency on repeatable tasks, with the robot e.g. taking on the site scanning night shift and delivering scans and pictures to be checked by the supervisor in the morning, enabling up-to-date as-built data analysis which helps reduce the amount of rework.
Fitting in robots into the construction workflow also raises some practical side issues, such as the need to manage a fleet of these novel devices, i.e. how to run maintenance schemes without interrupting workflows. And on the level of workflows the deployment of robots within the construction domain leads to new high-tech challenges around IoT. The amount of sensors that are being deployed and the further deepening and granularity of techniques such as BIM, add to the robot’s situational awareness, giving it the ability to better understand its environment and the changes that happen within its surroundings. But it also means that robotics need to be fully integrated into the larger ecosystem through a trusted exchange of data from the robot with a rapidly developing and exponentially growing cloud.
For the construction surveying community the introduction of robotics means that even more focus will shift towards tasks that require human insights and that as of yet cannot be captured in algorithms. Over the years, technology has put a lot of extra intelligence in the hands of people, helping teams reach human assertions and decisions on the big issues. On how and where to build with minimal impact within the rapidly urbanising environment, or on how to maintain stringent data quality in a developing IoT environment. Leaving the dull, dangerous and dirty tasks to machines.
Jim Coleman is Director of Engineering at Trimble