Photo: Boston Dynamics
When Boston Dynamics introduced its Spot robotic dog in 2016, the tech world was immediately enamored by it. The yellow four-legged robot could navigate its way around obstacles, and it even fought to stay on its feet when someone attempted to knock it down. It was the kind of tech breakthrough that was born to be viral. The big question was into what niches Spot would best fit.
One natural home Spot has found so far is on construction sites, where it assists in all kinds of tasks from site surveying to data collection. Its ability to avoid and detect objects made it perfect for the busy jobsite, undeterred by obstacles like steep stairs, tight corners, and even people and other machinery.
With Spot, they can see a site remotely, capture critical data, improve efficiency, and free up human workers for more value-generating activities.
In the age of coronavirus, where firms are looking for new, socially-distant ways to get the same amount of work done with fewer workers on site, a robot helper like Spot is well-positioned to help GCs. With Spot, they can see a site remotely, capture critical data, improve efficiency, and free up human workers for more value-generating activities.
In a recent live stream, Procore, construction management software provider, hosted a panel discussion featuring Boston Dynamics, construction leader Pomerleau and HoloBuilder to talk about how Spot can help companies maximize its usefulness.
What’s Fueling the Need for Construction Robots?
The topic of robotics and construction seems to inevitably raise the question of whether (or when) human workers will be replaced by machines that don’t get a paycheck and never take a break. According to Boston Dynamics’ Construction Technology Manager Brian Ringley those fears are overstated as robots can actually help crews do their jobs more easily.
“We’ve been focused on going to customer sites and speaking with people on-site about their challenges and how robots can augment what they’re trying to do. We’re finding that data collection is considered a low-level task and a distraction for a lot of field professionals who need to be focused on other things like staging the site, managing the trades, etc.,” said Ringley.
“There simply isn’t the capacity for these workers to collect data at the frequency, quality, and repeatability necessary to drive meaningful value downstream. So we’re trying to relieve some of these workers for higher-value tasks, but we’re also trying to accomplish things that simply weren’t possible and simply weren’t being done with existing workforce structures,” added Ringley.
Pomerleau is in the midst of a pilot program using Spot. Innovation Manager Isaac Charbonneau Beaulieu was an avid fan of Spot’s technology, eagerly awaiting the opportunity to work with Boston Dynamics. He said the collaboration was an extension of what they had already been trying to achieve.
“I’d been pushing to do something with them, and finally, at the end of last year, it became possible, and I was ecstatic to see the possibilities. As a general contractor, Pomerleau is always trying to push for collaboration with industry partners,” says Beaulieu.
“Our mission in the innovation department is to influence and transform the industry together; it’s all based on the ‘together.’ We’re not going to do it by ourselves, so we need to partner with people who do some great stuff and push it as much as possible. This was kind of a natural evolution for us.”
How Do Workers React to Spot?
Procore integration partner HoloBuilder is a construction progress management solution company that developed a system for recording jobsite progress using Spot. SpotWalk is an innovative 360-degree image capture technology that records the progress of a construction project over time. SpotWalk lets the robot take over the job of walking a construction site and documenting progress with a camera. With the images and data it captures, site managers can get a much better idea of a project’s progress, even remotely.
“At first it makes a big impression, like when you were a kid and saw an excavator for the first time. But after that, it’s just another tool and not as scary as people think.”
While initially jarring to see a headless robotic dog wandering around a jobsite capturing images, Christian Claus, CMO and head of partnerships for HoloBuilder said workers get used to it pretty fast.
“At first it makes a big impression, like when you were a kid and saw an excavator for the first time. The second time you see it, maybe you take another photo of it, but after that, it’s just another tool and not as scary as people think,” Claus explained.
The Spot costs around $75,000, putting it on par with a range of pricey construction equipment. As cool as it might sound to have an autonomous robotic dog walking around the jobsite, having a practical use for it is important to ensure a return on that investment.
According to Boston Dynamics’ Ringley, that value comes from Spot’s transformative ability to collect and analyze data when paired with a complementary solution.
“The industry has been talking about this need for better data collection for years. If you want to track cost overruns or project overruns, there isn’t really a great mechanism by which that data can be collected in near real-time to be used for better decision-making,” Ringley said.
“That’s the initial problem—providing a mobility solution that’s actually able to move through your space and collect data. We’ve had great success in that area right out of the gate. Another obvious value robots like Spot provide in the age of coronavirus is reducing the number of site visits necessary to keep tabs on projects. This not only cuts down the amount of time spent traveling but helps ensure jobsites remain less crowded.
“The ROI for GCs really comes from having that data and being able to work with it to improve existing workflows, which then enables you to see a site remotely rather than going there, which especially during COVID is appealing as travel is more restricted,” said Claus.
How Does Procore Fit into the Picture?
Great things happen when construction technology companies come together to solve a common challenge. The effects of such collaborations tend to be cumulative and mutually beneficial.
“It becomes a no-brainer where these tools have to work together, no tool can stand by itself.”
Speaking to Boston Dynamics’ integration with HoloBuilder, Ringley said, “In order to avoid pushing the data bottleneck further downstream, you have to have a way to process all of it. So we actually have to rethink the entire workflow with our partners. We can’t just inject a robot into a workflow and expect to fully realize its value; we have to have the robot plus a downstream application like SpotWalk that’s able to make sense of all this data.”
“HoloBuilder and Procore integrate. Now, HoloBuilder and Boston Dynamics have an integration. Basically, what that means is end-users like Isaac can now see the Spot-captured data through SpotWalk in Procore through the embedded experience, so you add one plus one, and it’s more than two by far. So it becomes a no-brainer where these tools have to work together, no tool can stand by itself,” said Claus.
“If you ‘walk’ the jobsite remotely and see something on a 360-degree photo you want to highlight, you make a markup in HoloBuilder. But you don’t want it to stay there; you want it to become an observation or an RFI within Procore. With this integration that syncs back and forth, that’s really where the true workflow efficiencies are won. That’s what customers are pushing for. The market demands these integrations.”