Spot the Robot Maps Project Progress

Nov. 16, 2022
Brasfield & Gorrie pilot project for new technologies

Like many general contractors, Alabama-based Brasfield & Gorrie is familiar with the operational challenges of collecting 360-degree documentation to monitor progress on their job sites.

Traditionally, the company has outsourced the work to third party documentation services and found that, while valuable, the imagery could be costly to gather. When cloud-based construction project management apps started to enable on-the-go documentation with mobile devices, Brasfield & Gorrie began transitioning to performing the work in-house on many projects so they could bring it under their own contract. But this inadvertently created another problem: It gave a tedious, time-consuming task to a project manager or engineer with an already full to-do list.

This case study is published with the permission of Boston Dynamics.

As Innovation and Operational Technology team manager Hunter Cole explains, “This person already has a full work week managing trade contractors and making sure everything is on time and on budget. Then you give them this tedious task to do, on top of that workload? When we thought about it, it became clear that the job should be automated.”

The company found a solution for automation in a customized robotic platform developed in partnership with Boston Dynamics and DroneDeploy.

Robot tracks construction operations

The Innovation and Operational Technology team at Brasfield & Gorrie leads pilot projects for new technologies and creates detailed plans to bring those tools into the field for day-to-day operations.

The team had been keeping an eye on robots for a long time and saw that using them to automate 360-degree documentation was a win-win: A robotic platform would free a person up to do more valuable work, including high-level thinking, problem-solving, and critical decision-making on the jobsite. Meanwhile, the robot could do the job of documentation even better than a typical worker might by getting better coverage and capturing data more precisely and frequently.

To begin the process of developing a robotic solution, the team tested a variety of platforms, but it quickly became clear that most weren’t up to the extreme challenges of a construction site. However, the team followed Boston Dynamics’ work over a few years, and saw that the company’s Spot robot could be the perfect solution for their needs.

“The thing that it really brought to the table,” says innovation specialist Jake Lovelace, “is locomotion and the ability to get around a jobsite. If you’ve ever been on a construction site before, you know how difficult that terrain is. It’s difficult for a human to cross, let alone a robot. It would have to go up and down embankments, ramps, and around all sorts of obstacles. With Spot, it was clear Boston Dynamics had solved that problem.”

When Boston Dynamics announced an early-adopter program for Spot, Cole applied on behalf of Brasfield & Gorrie. Then he learned that longtime partner DroneDeploy was interested in Spot as well, and the two companies decided to collaborate on validating a new end-to-end solution.

Brasfield & Gorrie focused on developing the capture side of the workflow, building out the Spot platform using their own custom hardware and software. DroneDeploy handled the after-capture portion, building out a solution for uploading, hosting, processing, and analyzing the data from any 360 camera.

Spot the robot customized for autonomy

The Brasfield & Gorrie team got to work immediately developing a hardware payload for Spot. They mounted 360-degree cameras, environmental sensors that could measure data such as particulate levels and temperature, as well as a custom power supply board. They also added a small but powerful computer to direct the robot’s movements using the Spot software development kit (SDK).

Meanwhile, Lovelace developed a series of applications that enable an operator to plan and execute automated capture missions. First, the operator begins by opening a central web app for mission planning. Then they upload a floor plan and place a series of pre-programmed actions. These actions will tell the robot where to go and when to take photos.

Once the mission is planned, the user connects to a second web app powered by the robot’s onboard WiFi network and downloads the mission file. When they execute the mission, this app uses Spot’s SDK to direct the robot. It starts the robot remotely, moves it around the construction environment, and gathers 360° documentation. Spot handles the mobility and obstacle avoidance without any human guidance.

When the mission is complete and the robot connects to the network, it uploads the documentation data back to the central web app. The app sends the data to DroneDeploy’s 360 Walkthrough solution automatically while also performing basic data analysis locally, such as attaching the 360-degree images onto a drawing sheet for quick reference.

Lovelace adds that this central web app can offer a broad range of functionality outside of the central workflow. If the robot has a persistent data connection like WiFi or LTE, for instance, it can send real-time updates on battery level, data from the environmental sensors, fleet updates on how many Spots are out on missions and their current poses, and even a robot’s internal logs for debugging. He says he is already working to add remote operation of Spot robots.

Lovelace spent a lot of time working with the SDK over the course of the project and got to know it very well. He noted that the kit “made development very easy,” specifically highlighting its flexibility. “It helps quite a bit that the platform is software agnostic. Since the Spot SDK gRPC framework’s not locked into a particular language or environment, I ended up using a lot of different languages. I wrote in Python and C# and Javascript—whatever language I needed. It saved me from a common challenge with SDKs, which make you mold to their environment.”

He was also impressed by the safety features that protected the robot and nearby workers on the jobsite. “A strong SDK can prevent physical crashes from occurring when a piece of software crashes. I’m impressed with how well the SDK handles errors, and all the safety mechanisms that are built in to prevent failures. These different protocols provide a series of checks and balances to the power and autonomy you get from the SDK.”

Lovelace adds that he gained a lot of value from the growing user community for Boston Dynamics products. “To have that base of developers that are asking questions and answering questions and helping each other out, that was very big for us.”

Now that they had a working Spot platform that they could send on capture missions, the Brasfield & Gorrie team went to the jobsite for some real-world pilot projects.

“We have already seen success,” says Lovelace. “We’ve run it on a few different projects and had the 360° video upload in real time. But one of the biggest things we’re focused on is getting people exposed to this unique platform. It’s similar to where drones were a few years ago. When they were new, there were a lot of eyes on them on the jobsite, but now they’re pretty commonplace. So we’re taking the robot around different jobsites, touring it around, having it run missions just to show people its autonomous capabilities.”

Cole says that the pilot projects have quickly validated the team’s automated Spot solution as construction ready. “We wanted to know, is this equipment up to the challenges of the construction environment, which is ever-changing, extremely abusive, and very rigorous? Based on our testing across several real jobsites, Spot is a rugged, mobile robot that can reliably navigate a construction site.”

“To be honest,” he adds, “we were a little surprised with how robust Spot’s mobility is, and how good the obstacle avoidance is. Sure, we’ve experienced a hiccup here or there, but Spot has proven to be a very durable piece of equipment.”

According to Cole, the customized Spot solution has also been unexpectedly consistent. “We wanted to know, can we successfully repeat this site capture process, with Jake sending Spot on a mission to collect photos in the right rooms, and return to where it started? And that is also a yes.”

With proof that the Spot platform performs well on real jobsites, the Brasfield & Gorrie team is working toward their long-term goal of implementing the technology across the organization.

The next step for Brasfield & Gorrie is to deploy Spot long-term on a few select jobsites with tech-savvy teams. These Spots could run daily or weekly site documentation over a long period of time, enabling remote teams to observe the results, get more real world feedback, and possibly even test other applications for the robot like laser scanning, environmental monitoring, and materials delivery.

Lovelace wants to use these long-term deployments to identify the gaps in full autonomy and get the platform to be fully self-sufficient. “The long-term vision is for the whole process to be as easy as a Roomba. You set it up, the robot comes off its dock, does the mission, comes right back, and gives you an internet report every night.”

ROI for robotic tracking of operations

When a contractor tests any cutting-edge technology, proving that it works is only half the battle. They also need to show that the tool can offer a return on investment. Cole said that wasn’t too difficult with Spot once you account for the time necessary for a person to complete the same task. After some quick napkin math, he determined that his team’s customized Spot solution would pay for itself in as little as two years.

But even before it paid itself off, he notes, it would offer a lot of qualitative value on jobsites. “When we discuss our options for digital documentation at project startup, we now have an automated solution we can consider as well. When a project team needs regular documentation of a large jobsite and an automated solution is available to free up personnel to do higher-level tasks that only humans can do—well, that would be a pretty obvious decision.”

About the Author

Rod Sutton

I have served as the editorial lead of Construction Equipment magazine and since 2001. 

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