In the run-up to WDBE 2021, we sat down with Brian Ringley, Boston Dynamics’ Construction Technology Manager. Our discussion covered the technical challenges involved in implementing robots on construction sites, the obstacles standing in the way of autonomy, and the renewed value of data capture.
If one thing is clear, Covid has produced a call for automation.
The recent disruption has highlighted a renewed need for safe and timely on-site reporting, alongside the ability to take a ‘hands-off ‘ approach to repetitive or dangerous tasks.
But requesting an answer to a problem is a very different beast from providing the right one for a diverse range of clients.
Answering the Call
The solution to this problem is currently being unpacked by designers at Boston Dynamics. After making headlines with the iconic launch of BigDog in 2005, their teams introduced Spot in 2016, and it was not long after that Brian Ringley saw the answer to his prayers.
“Before joining Boston Dynamics, I was educated as an architect and worked in a practice as a design technologist,” says Ringley. “This led to me operating as a construction researcher for a few years. At the time I was trying to understand how to move the construction of buildings off-site. When it came to building design and manufacturing, I was exposed to constant sampling technology problems and ended up using design computation to build bespoke software tools to deal with problems.”
For Ringley, translating construction methodologies from factories and warehouses into the world of construction produced constant logistical issues. However, in 2018, Ringley was finally exposed to Boston Dynamic’s Spot after on-site testing a range of wheeled and tracked units.
“Seeing the potential in Spotdirectly led to my interest in moving to Boston Dynamics. Because I knew that that’s where I could have a really big impact on the construction industry,” he says.
In his current role, Ringley supports the breaking down of construction tasks into logistical exercises that are supported by the use of automated robots, Digital Twins, and BIM technology. These digital tools allow practitioners to make full use of the sensor data captured by automated units and draw out project-specific insights.
However, bringing robots like Spot into live construction environments creates a unique series of practical challenges.
“There is a lot to consider. Sites are defined by dynamic obstacles. That could be a pallet of materials in the way, somebody coming around a corner, moving vehicles and equipment. And it all changes moment to moment,” he says. “Then there’s physical obstacles that can introduce risk. You’ve got gaps in the floor. Holes, barriers, cabling, piping, piles of materials, wet spots, puddles, standing water. You name it! We are deploying into a real, mutable environment. Not a polished, flat surface where you can deploy a fleet of drones.”
For Ringley and his team, progress means the use of agile, mobile robots to capture data in a site space. This information is then fed into a unified model that gives live updates and oversight, creating a ‘foundation of reality’ that can potentially scale from a single building project to complex urban environments.
Constant exposure to timely, validated data means that client decision-making becomes more informed. Users are ultimately rewarded with a full oversight of their project and the potential ability to model, build, and prefabricate materials on demand.
Obstacles to Autonomy
A current, key objective for Boston Dynamics is reducing the friction required to implement a robot-mounted sensor solution on-site. Unfortunately, roadblocks continue to abound.
“While it’s our responsibility to educate users, I do think people have false notions of what autonomy means and what’s truly valuable about it,” he says. “First and foremost, there will always be collaboration. Value is unlocked when robots are paired with human intelligence, and you are able to do things you simply couldn’t before. You may be hands-off in terms of what the robots are actually doing. But the human element is there when it’s required”
For Ringley, this boils down to a user’s capacity to ‘trust’ autonomous units. In practice, these operate on-site, acquire the necessary data, and return to an assigned base. Once home, they can pass data to the cloud where it is fed back into digital models and works to supply business insights and aid decision making.
It is, in fact, the very process that Boston Dynamics uses to capture information about the performance of their units and lead improvements in-house.
“It’s our secret weapon [laughs]. We have a lot of really great early adopters, and we have hundreds of robots out in these environments and on job sites. This lets us learn at an accelerated pace. It’s incredible how much you learn just from a few days in the field with the customer.” Ringley says.
The Cost of Covid
It is this kind of practical, customer-led approach that would conventionally be derailed by Covid.
But, for Boston Dynamics, disruption didn’t mean sacrificing opportunities for learning and innovation.
For Ringley’s team, the lockdown period forced their teams to deliver sales demonstrations through the internet. Fortunately, their platform used the same remote operation capabilities and software as was deployed on-site. This meant clients, customers, and staff were able to deliver instant feedback on performance – allowing Boston Dynamics to implement useful functionality and changes across the period.
But, as with most innovation, the most useful piece of insight arrived almost by accident.
“There was a use-case for using robots in dangerous environments. The thing was…Covid made everything dangerous. All of a sudden, remote access became incredibly important on construction sites,” he says. “We were presented with situations where there was no access. At all. This led to some thinking about how that is an experience for some stakeholders – many of whom never really had that big of a level of access in the first place. How does an owner remotely check in on progress? How do you minimize unnecessary density on-site? It opened doors. There’s no question about it.”
Ultimately, automated sensor technology allowed users to ‘close the loop’ when it came to information capture. This granted continuous feedback and insight to users on and off-site, allowing for unparalleled, validated decision-making.
“Historically, a lot of design models aren’t actually connected to what’s going on-site,” Ringley says. “So you can’t really make decisions with them. Imagine being able to see that information in real-time. The impact of logistical changes. Or how things are being installed relative to the design. It lets you catch issues as they happen, course correct, and learn from your mistakes.”
In an age where prefabrication, sustainability, and efficiency are more desirable than ever, it’s a tempting prospect for many.
Currently, Ringley and his team are working in partnership with Trimble Inc. to combine modular, agile Spot units with leading sensor technology and data-collection systems. The goal is to offer an out-of-the-box solution for on-site scanning that adapts to bespoke demands and supports a ‘closed loop’ approach to data capture using autonomous robots.
Or as Ringley puts it-
“I think it’s really attractive because, historically, it’s just been really expensive to take them. It’s a ton of work, and it’s frankly, it’s not worth it for most building owners. So our approach is ‘let’s make it worth it’. Because that would be really effective, efficient, and helpful…and profitable for everyone [laughs].”
Brian Ringley will be speaking at WDBE 2021 on September 29, 2021. You can book tickets from here or learn more about the other events and the regularly updated agenda.
Photo: Aarni Heiskanen, 2021