Like many general contractors, Alabama-based Brasfield & Gorrie knows the operational challenges of collecting 360-degree documentation to track progress on their job sites.
Traditionally, the company outsourced the work to third-party documentation services and found that, while valuable, the images could be expensive to collect. When cloud-based construction project management applications began to allow on-the-go documentation with mobile devices, Brasfield & Gorrie began to make the transition to performing work in-house on many projects so that they can do so under their own contract. But this inadvertently created another problem: it gave a tedious and 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 Hunter Cole, Innovation and Operational Technology team lead, explains, “This person already has a full week of work managing contractors and making sure everything is on time and on budget. . Then you give them that tedious task to do, on top of that workload? When we thought about it, it became clear that the work needed to be automated. »
The company found an automation solution in a custom robotics platform developed in partnership with Boston Dynamics and DroneDeploy.
The robot follows the construction operations
Brasfield & Gorrie’s Innovation and Operational Technology team leads pilot projects for new technologies and creates detailed plans to put these tools in the field for day-to-day operations.
The team had been monitoring robots for a long time and found that using them to automate 360-degree documentation was a win-win solution: a robotic platform would free up a person to do more useful work, including a high level thinking, problem solving and critical decision making on the job site. Meanwhile, the robot could do the documentation job even better than a typical worker by getting better coverage and capturing data more accurately and frequently.
To begin the process of developing a robotic solution, the team tested a variety of platforms, but it quickly became apparent that most were not up to the extreme challenges of a construction site. However, the team followed Boston Dynamics’ work for a few years and saw that the company’s Spot robot could be the perfect solution for their needs.
“What he really brought to the table,” says innovation specialist Jake Lovelace, “is locomotion and the ability to move around a construction site. If you’ve ever been to a construction site, you know how difficult this terrain is. It is difficult for a human to traverse, let alone a robot. He would have to climb up and down embankments, ramps and around all kinds of obstacles. With Spot, it was clear that Boston Dynamics had fixed this problem.
When Boston Dynamics announced an early adoption program for Spot, Cole applied on behalf of Brasfield & Gorrie. Then he learned that longtime partner DroneDeploy was also interested in Spot, and the two companies decided to work together to validate a new end-to-end solution.
Brasfield & Gorrie focused on developing the capture side of the workflow, developing the Spot platform using their own custom hardware and software. DroneDeploy handled the post-capture part, creating a solution for uploading, hosting, processing and analyzing data from any 360 camera.
Spot the personalized robot for autonomy
The Brasfield & Gorrie team immediately got to work developing a hardware payload for Spot. They mounted 360-degree cameras, environmental sensors capable of measuring data such as particle levels and temperature, and a custom power board. They also added a small but powerful computer to direct the robot’s movements using the Spot software development kit (SDK).
During this time, Lovelace has developed a series of applications that allow an operator to plan and execute automated capture missions. First, the operator starts by opening a central web application 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 pictures.
Once the mission is planned, the user connects to a second web application powered by the robot’s on-board WiFi network and downloads the mission file. When they perform 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 mobility and obstacle avoidance without any human assistance.
When the mission is complete and the robot connects to the network, it uploads the documentation data to the central web application. The app automatically sends data to DroneDeploy’s 360 Walkthrough solution while performing basic analysis of the data locally, such as attaching 360-degree images to a drawing sheet for quick reference.
Lovelace adds that this central web application can offer a wide range of functionality outside of the central workflow. If the robot has a persistent data connection like WiFi or LTE, for example, it can send real-time updates on battery level, environmental sensor data, fleet updates on the number of Spots on mission 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.
He was also impressed with the safety features that protected the robot and nearby workers on the job site. “A powerful SDK can prevent physical crashes from occurring when software crashes. I’m impressed with how the SDK handles errors and all the built-in safety mechanisms to prevent crashes. These different protocols provide a series of checks and balances to the power and battery life you get from the SDK.”
Lovelace adds that he has derived great value from the growing community of users of Boston Dynamics products. “Having this base of developers asking questions, answering questions, and helping each other out was really important to us.”
Now that they had a working Spot rig they could send on capture missions, the Brasfield & Gorrie team went to the job site for real-life pilot projects.
“We’ve already seen success,” says Lovelace. “We ran it on a few different projects and uploaded the 360 video in real time. But one of the most important things we focus on is exposing people to this unique platform. It’s similar to what drones were like a few years ago. When they were new they were seen a lot on the job site, but now they are quite common. So we take the robot to different construction sites, visit it, make it perform missions just to show people its autonomous capabilities.
Cole says the pilots quickly validated the team’s automated Spot solution as ready for construction. “We wanted to know, is this equipment up to the challenges of the construction industry, which is constantly changing, extremely abusive and very rigorous? Based on our testing on several real job sites, Spot is a robust and mobile robot that can reliably navigate a construction site.
“To be honest,” he adds, “we were a little surprised at how robust Spot was in terms of mobility and how good it was at avoiding obstacles. Of course, we had a hitch here and there. , but Spot turned out to be a very durable piece of equipment.
According to Cole, the custom Spot solution was also unexpectedly consistent. “We wanted to know if we could successfully repeat this site capture process, with Jake sending Spot on a mission to collect photos from the right rooms and get back to where it all started? And that’s also a yes.
With proof that the Spot platform works well on real job sites, the Brasfield & Gorrie team is working towards their long-term goal of implementing the technology across the organization.
The next step for Brasfield & Gorrie is to deploy Spot on a long-term basis on a few selected sites with state-of-the-art teams. These Spots could run daily or weekly site documentation over an extended period, allowing remote teams to observe the results, get more real-world feedback, and possibly even test other applications for the robot like sweeping. laser, environmental monitoring and material delivery.
Lovelace wants to use these long-term deployments to self-identify gaps and make the platform fully self-sustaining. “The long-term vision is for the whole process to be as easy as a Roomba. You set it up, the robot comes out of its dock, completes the mission, comes right back, and gives you an internet report every night .
ROI for robotic monitoring of operations
When an entrepreneur is testing cutting-edge technology, proving it works is only half the battle. They must also show that the tool can deliver a return on investment. Cole said it’s not too difficult with Spot once you factor in how long it takes for a person to complete the same task. After some quick towel calculations, he determined that his team’s custom Spot solution would pay for itself in just two years.
But even before it pays for itself, he notes, it would offer a lot of qualitative value on job sites. “When we discuss our digital documentation options at the start of the project, we now have an automated solution that we can also consider. When a project team needs regular documentation on a large construction site and an automated solution is available to free up personnel to perform higher-level tasks that only humans can perform, well, that would be a decision quite obvious.