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Inside Innovation: Dancing into the future with robots, construction’s new party animals

John Bleasby
Inside Innovation: Dancing into the future with robots, construction’s new party animals

There’s a YouTube video that’s gone viral lately, showing a group of robots vigorously dancing to the tune of “Do you love me?” The robots, developed through a strategic alliance between Boston Dynamics and Trimble, demonstrate the dexterity and balance now possible with two and four legged automated devices.

Boston Dynamics founder and chairperson Marc Raibert told the Associated Press that confronting the programming challenges that allowed the robots to so closely mimic human dance movements forced developers to come up with improved motion-programming tools and were “a real benefit to the design.”Entertainment value aside, the most recent developments to Boston Dynamics’ Spot® robot platform are of particular interest to the construction industry when it comes to site monitoring and scanning.

According to a Trimble media release, “The jointly-developed solution will combine the Spot robot’s autonomous mobility with Trimble’s data collection sensors and field control software to enable automation of repetitive tasks such as site scans, surveying and progress monitoring, while taking advantage of the robot’s unique capabilities to navigate dynamic and potentially unsafe environments.”

Beyond their usefulness to builders during the site preparation stage and beyond, Brian Ringley, a construction technology manager at Boston Dynamics, writes in The Journal of the American Institute of Architects  that robots can also be of great help to project architects.

“Architects neither own the construction site nor operate primarily within it, so they understandably struggle to access the jobsite data they need in order to augment their design models with as-built conditions. Typically, only a small number of architects visit the jobsite periodically, while the rest of the office stays fixed to stationary computers.”

This can result in what Ringley calls “a siloed design culture.”

“Enter agile mobile robotics,” continues Ringley, “ the missing piece in an autonomous field-data tech stack that overcomes current limitations of static sensors and aerial drones for interior capture in order to perform a precise, unsupervised repetition of tasks at scale.”

Within the context of robotic data capture, there are questions that remain unanswered surrounding which project stakeholder is responsible for the significant investment required to put robots into the field and capture the data. For example, he points out it’s hard to imagine architects themselves managing a fleet of onsite robots.

“Data capture is not explicitly within a subcontracted trade’s scope. While a general contractor would obviously benefit from it, no clear precedent for rigorous jobsite reality capture at scale exists.”

No matter who makes the investment, all parties would reap the benefits.

“Construction robots are networked, remotely accessible, and thus easily shareable between stakeholders,” writes Ringley. “They can be used across multiple projects and/or beyond construction into the operation of a property, justifying the cost of the initial investment with deployments over the full building life cycle.”

The resultant feedback loop would encourage productive dialogue between stakeholders, while the data collected and then incorporated into design models would improve the value associated with BIM for the overall project.

Meanwhile, visionaries are working towards their dream of robots actually doing complex construction work on jobsites.

Architect Stefana Parascho and engineer Sigrid Adriaenssens, both Princeton researchers, partnered with architecture and engineering firm Skidmore to build a massive, double-curved glass wall using robots. Measuring seven feet tall, 12 feet across and 21 feet long, the ‘LightVault’ installation in London, U.K., was constructed from 338 transparent glass bricks without any scaffolding.

“My work is not trying to replace human labour by automating it, but to increase the possibilities for architecture by using robots for tasks that humans are rather bad at,” said Parascho in a Princeton news release. “For example, holding a three kilogram (seven pound) brick for seven minutes — without moving, to allow the glue to dry — is very hard for humans to do.”

Today, their robots can roam, survey and scan jobsites and difficult terrain. Inevitably, there will be a financially viable and appealing future for robots in challenging assembly situations.

John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont.-based freelance writer. Send comments and Inside Innovation column ideas to editor@dailycommercialnews.com.

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