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Boston Dynamics robot dog used to inspect construction work at Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech researchers are unleashing an autonomous robot dog on university construction sites to investigate the applications of using robots to monitor construction progress. 

Faculty and students from Myers-Lawson School of Construction, within the College of Architecture and Urban Studies and College of Engineering, are partnering with the Division of Campus Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities and industry sponsor Procon Consulting to deploy Spot, a mobile robot dog developed by Boston Dynamics, to conduct this innovative research.

The ongoing experimental investigation is exploring whether construction progress monitoring – a traditionally human-dependent, labor-intensive, and error-prone process – can be improved by leveraging autonomous robotic technology to lead the systematic collection of data in construction environments.

Six months into the yearlong study, the team recently published its initial findings, which include operating procedures required to launch legged robots in dynamic construction settings and early opportunities and limitations in using robots in this capacity.

“Introducing robotic technologies on construction sites can offer many exciting opportunities. The ability to monitor construction progress remotely through autonomous means is a prime example. Other opportunities are improving the accuracy of data collection, accessing hard-to-reach or hazardous job sites, and diverting human capital capacity to other tasks,” said Kereshmeh Afsari, assistant professor in the Myers-Lawson School of Construction and the project’s principal investigator.

“The goal of this study is to look at the feasibility of robots on active construction sites and assess any challenges. Job Sites are extremely dynamic environments, presenting evolving human and physical navigation barriers for robots. There is a need for further exploration around operations limits for autonomous robots to boost effectiveness and safety by implementing sensors and other controls.”

Three capital construction sites on the Blacksburg campus are serving as the study’s backdrop: the Creativity and Innovation District Living-Learning Community, Holden Hall, and the Student Athlete Performance Center.

Within the job sites, construction management students and researchers navigate Spot via remote control. They capture hundreds of 360-degree photographs of construction progress using the camera and HoloBuilder construction monitoring app mounted atop the robot dog.

To automate the data collection process, 2D floor plans are loaded into the app and the operator marks the locations where data will be collected. The operator also records the robot’s navigation paths within the app for future use. The data gathered within the app is analyzed for accuracy and communicated among all project stakeholders.

The unique collaboration among academics, operations, and private industry bringing Spot to Virginia Tech is as innovative as the research itself.

“While we could have conducted this research privately, there are many reasons driving our partnership with Virginia Tech. The university provides strong institutional capabilities in its ability to rigorously study the effectiveness and usability of the technology. Our intention is to develop a long-term collaboration with Virginia Tech to continually investigate emerging technologies and encourage the development of robotics, automation, and information systems standards that improve the interoperability between various architecture, engineering, construction, and operations technology solutions,” said Steve DeVito, director of technology at Procon Consulting.

“Procon’s two cofounders are also proud Virginia Tech alumni. As an organization, we believe strongly in investing in the next generation of construction leaders. Putting emerging technologies like Spot into the hands of students is one way we can help foster the construction talent pipeline for years to come.”

“Teamwork has been a guiding catalyst supporting this study. Procon’s leaders are industry visionaries. After working together on a previous technology-related project about three years ago, I was elated to learn of their interest in introducing the latest robotic technologies onto Virginia Tech construction sites,” said Walid Thabet, professor in the Myers-Lawson School of Construction and co-principal investigator.

“We’ve also been working closely with the Virginia Tech capital construction team for the past six years and are grateful for their continued willingness to open up their job sites to our students and research activities.”

Experts on the capital construction team are working closely with the research team to enable the deployment of legged robots on hazardous and dynamically changing construction sites. Capital construction leaders partnered with Virginia Tech Research and Innovation, Procurement, Risk Management, and Office of Legal Counsel to mitigate operational risks and to establish a legal service agreement for the use of the quadruped robot on live construction sites.

All of these stakeholders also helped the research team to implement standard operating procedures on the construction sites in a way that is safe for both human workers and for the robot.

“We’re thrilled to open up our capital construction sites to help advance Virginia Tech’s educational and research missions. With a host of construction projects underway and planned on the Blacksburg campus and across Virginia, the Division of Campus Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities is looking forward to more creative partnerships with students, our academic peers, and industry leaders,” said Paul Ely, associate director of capital construction and renovations.

Also, general contractors managing the construction of these projects including W.M. Jordan Company and Branch Builds have been working closely with the research team to investigate autonomous robot navigation and monitor weekly progress on the job sites.

“On-site technology adoption requires collaboration and support from all project stakeholders, and we are very fortunate to have the support of Virginia Tech capital construction and their knowledgeable experts as well as the support of the general contractors in this project. During the on-site robot operation and investigation, we have in-depth discussion with these representatives who accompany us weekly on the job sites to find innovative solutions for the safe and effective integration of legged robots with construction inspection tasks,” said Afsari.

For the students engaged in the study, every interaction with Spot has brought a new opportunity to put classroom knowledge into practice.

“We’ve learned quite a bit about Spot and its autonomous capabilities, particularly what it can and can’t do right now. It will be very interesting to see how the technology evolves in response to human intervention and the operational foundation we are building today through our research. Future applications for autonomous robots on construction sites could include everything from remote inspections, geo-locating utilities to support maintenance efforts, safely identifying gas leaks, and much more,” said Srijeet Halder, a PhD student studying automation and robotics in construction. Halder is leading data modeling efforts in the study.

“Despite the restrictions caused by the pandemic, we have had the opportunity to present our research results to multiple groups of students, including Building Construction Capstone students and Christiansburg middle schoolers,” explained Afsari.

“We are delighted to work with excellent students on the team, both graduates and undergraduates, who are excited about construction robotics and are committed to implementing emerging technologies in the construction industry that has historically suffered from lack of technological solutions. Virginia Tech students will become leaders in construction robotics.”

The research project is expected to conclude in fall 2021. Research updates will be shared via VT News. And a video of the project can be viewed here.

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