Collaboration advances legged robot research on Virginia Tech construction sites
Robotic dogs can dance in front of packed stadiums and crowds, but how do they perform on construction sites?
A yearlong Virginia Tech investigation with industry sponsor and alumni-founded Procon Consulting aimed to answer that question, exploring the applications of using robots — in this case, Spot, Boston Dynamics’ mobile robot dog — to monitor progress on university capital construction sites.
In on-site experimental studies, this research revealed when compared to their human counterparts, autonomous robots have the potential to improve the accuracy, consistency, and quality of reality data capture within a live construction environment.
“Our research highlighted many opportunities where robotic technology has the potential to improve efficiency in conducting autonomous remote inspections and progress monitoring on construction sites. From generating better quality 360-degree visuals captured, to increasing the frequency of inspections, and making remote access to job sites possible, there are many advantages to leveraging the technology,” said Kereshmeh Afsari, assistant professor in the Myers-Lawson School of Construction, within the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, and the project’s principal investigator.
“We saw how robotic reality capture can improve access to construction status. This can help enhance coordination among stakeholders — contractors, project managers, owners, architects, engineers, researchers, and others," Afsari continued. "Being able to consistently monitor construction progress and to remotely conduct inspections can help speed up decision making and project adjustments on construction job sites to avoid cost overruns or schedule delays.”
“This robotic technology has the potential to perform as a force multiplier in construction projects. The primary area of effectiveness of this technology is when the robot is remotely and autonomously deployed,” explained Steve DeVito, director of technology at Procon Consulting. “Our research showed that the key in adopting this robotic technology on live construction sites is the collaboration of project stakeholders to prepare construction sites for the robot’s autonomous navigation and enable its effective implementation.”
“This research project on its own has been a story of collaboration. Many people at Virginia Tech collaborated to make the research possible to enable autonomous implementation of the robot on campus construction sites. The outcome of the research is about construction teams being able to collaborate from afar to improve the quality of the project” said Paul Ely, associate director of capital construction and renovations within the Division of Campus Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities.
Additional advantages of using autonomous robots in construction monitoring coming out of the research included improved reality data in terms of accuracy and consistency of reality capture data as well as educational opportunities both for students and workforce training.
The investigation concluded in September with results published in Associated Schools of Construction (ASC) 57th Annual International Conference Proceedings, 2021 ASCE International Conference on Computing in Civil Engineering (i3CE2021), and 38th International Symposium on Automation and Robotics in Construction (ISARC). The team also presented a Robotics and Reality Capture for Remote Inspection and Documentation education session in the Construction Management Association of America (CMAA 2021) conference in Philadelphia.
Do these opportunities mean Spot is ready to be deployed in active construction settings?
Not just yet.
The dynamic nature of active construction sites poses operational limitations in deploying robotic technologies in this manner.
“We experienced how Spot’s operation is currently limited to some specific conditions. Currently Spot cannot see transparent objects and it cannot operate around cords which are common on construction sites and can entangle its legs. We saw this firsthand in the Creativity and Innovation District Residence Hall - a now complete capital construction project whose environment progressed rapidly over the past year and in Holden Hall project,” said Walid Thabet, professor in the Department of Building Construction and co-principal investigator.
Robot autonomy is another challenge. “Fully autonomous mobile robots in unstructured environments of construction sites will take longer to achieve and robot autonomy is an area of ongoing research,” explained Afsari.
“Currently Spot’s navigation on construction sites needs constant intervention by a human operator. Our experiments on live construction sites showed that the robot’s autonomous mission is currently facing challenges in navigating a dynamically changing environment that causes the robot's localization error. Also, Spot might not be able to adjust its path and complete its autonomous mission if spaces on its previously recorded path are congested with construction materials,” said Srijeet Halder, a Ph.D. student in the ARCADE lab and the graduate research assistant in this project.
Safety limitations would be another impediment to releasing Spot on an active job site. “Construction sites are hazardous environments. While using robots - especially in remote or hard-to-access job sites - can potentially help reduce human safety risks, implementation of construction robotic technology must be carefully analyzed in advance to reduce the hazards on job sites,” DeVito said.
For Virginia Tech researchers and Procon, having a standard operating procedure in place prior to using the robot on construction job sites was critical to safe operation of Spot across three capital construction sites.
“At the heart of our research implementation strategy was a coordinated approach to mitigating risk and maximizing human safety. The Division of Campus Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities, University Legal Counsel, the Office of Risk Management, Virginia Tech Procurement, W.M. Jordan, and many others, worked diligently to identify potential research hazards to help the research team to develop a Standard Operating Procedure for the robot prior to operation,” said Ely.
The standard operating procedure developed in this research included the hours that Spot could be used autonomously on the job sites - during lunch breaks and outside of working hours - when its navigation path can be isolated from human workers. It also included requirements around inspecting the construction environment and clearing the robot's navigation path from hazardous objects including cords before operation to reduce tripping and falling hazards.
Opportunities for further investigation
Swift adoption of autonomous legged technology also remains complicated by the lack of national workplace safety guidelines around robots on construction sites.
As part of the research, Minghao Dong, a senior majoring in construction engineering and management, examined existing regulations and standards around legged robot safety on construction sites.
“Autonomous robot safety is an important topic that academic researchers and industry experts must focus on before this technology can be fully adopted in construction. Organizations like the American National Standards Institute and the International Organization for Standardization have developed standards for industrial robot safety that mainly includes robotic arms,” said Dong.
“There have also been published case studies of fatalities and serious injuries that were caused by the use of robots in manufacturing and construction workplaces.”
Dong’s research experience was made possible through a safety undergraduate research fund facilitated through the Kevin P. Granata Memorial Program and the Myers-Lawson School of Construction.
A collaborative, hands-on approach to research and learning
Dong and Halder were among many students that had the opportunity to gain hands-on learning and industry experience through the Spot project. The research team held a robotics workshop on Oct. 8 to Virginia Tech students. Twenty students from multiple disciplines at Virginia Tech including CEM, BC, VCEMP, CS, and ISE attended the workshop to learn from both faculty and industry partners in this research project. The students learned about the importance of reality capture in construction projects and how the research team used Spot on construction sites for automated and remote reality capture. The students also collaborated with five industry experts from Procon Consulting in the workshop to develop robotic concepts to address automation challenges in the construction process.
In fact, it was similar hands-on learning experiences in the Myers-Lawson School of Construction that inspired Procon Consulting co-founders and Virginia Tech alumni Kyu Jung and Mark Ilich to partner with Virginia Tech in this research.
For Mahnaz Ensafi, a student in the Environmental Design and Planning Ph.D. program in the Myers-Lawson School of Construction, collaboration with the industry through academic research has been a unique experience.
“Through the research with Spot, I had the opportunity to collaborate with industry professionals and gain hands-on experience with this cutting-edge robotic technology” said Ensafi. During the collaboration with the research team, Ensafi was offered an opportunity to intern at Procon Consulting in Arlington, Virginia during summer 2021. Upon completing her internship, she was offered a full time position to join Procon Consulting after completion of her Ph.D. studies in 2022.
The research team will present their research results regarding the effectiveness evaluation of the use of Spot in construction progress monitoring in the Construction Research Congress (CRC). Their peer-reviewed research paper titled “Identification of Indicators for Effectiveness Evaluation of Four-Legged Robots in Automated Construction Progress Monitoring” is accepted and will be published in March 2022.