As the construction industry struggles with labor shortages, it’s starting to embrace technological solutions. This includes robotics, as Development magazine detailed in its Spring 2019 issue. A promising new construction robot, Boston Dynamics’ Spot, illustrated the potential for this technology during a recent demonstration at HITT Contracting’s Co|Lab construction research facility in Falls Church, Virginia.
The Breed Standard
Spot is a 33-inch-tall, four-legged robot that, true to its name, does indeed resemble a mechanical dog. It weighs about 60 pounds and can move in multiple directions, climb stairs and avoid obstacles. Spot’s top speed is around 3.5 miles per hour, and it can carry about 30 pounds. Spot can operate for 90 minutes on a swappable battery that takes about 45 minutes to recharge.
The robot has an array of sensors and cameras that allow it to perceive its surroundings in 360 degrees. It is operated remotely with video-game-style joystick controls, but it can also work semi-autonomously via pre-programmed “missions.”
“This is one of the first commercially viable robots for construction,” said Kipp Ivey, key accounts manager for building information modeling (BIM) with Faro, a company that specializes in 3-D measurement and imaging. “Spot is a technologically elegant solution. It’s intuitive. It’s very easy to use.”
‘An Absolute Necessity’
According to Ivey, that ease of use could help attract workers to the construction industry, which is facing pervasive worker shortages.
“Young people are not coming into the trades,” he said. “Today, I think the concept of robotics and the gamification of construction through robotics and other technology is how we’re going to attract kids who are playing ‘Call of Duty’ out of their basements.”
The demand for labor in construction is so great that there is no reason to fear robots supplanting human workers, said Anthony Marchio, an enterprise account executive with OpenSpace, a company that uses artificial intelligence to create 360-degree images of construction sites.
“For every one person being hired in construction, we’re losing two to three people to retirement,” he said. “So we’re absolutely not worried about robots taking jobs. There’s a labor shortage. Robots will be an absolute necessity if we’re going to keep pace with demand.”
For the Co|Lab demonstration, Spot was fitted with image-capturing technology. While data capture might represent Spot’s initial deployment in construction, Ivey said the best use of the robot could be in places that are unsafe for humans.
“What immediately comes to mind in construction is confined space and hazardous conditions,” he said. “Maybe it’s something where you don’t want to HazMat up, throw on your booties and send somebody in so they can do 10 minutes of work and come back out. First of all, that’s a labor function that’s highly costly to monitor in a confined space. Secondly, it’s dangerous. I would rather lose a robot than lose a person.”
How Much is That Doggie?
While some forward-looking contractors might want to add Spot to their equipment inventory, the robot is not currently for sale. Instead, Boston Dynamics leases it.
“Our general guidance is that the total cost of the lease will be less than the price of a car, but that may vary depending on the number of Spots leased and how long the customer will be leasing the robot,” a spokesperson for Boston Dynamics said via email.
While Ivey said he’s not sure how many Spots are currently deployed on construction sites, he did say that Tesla is using “two or three” at its factories.
“There aren’t a ton out there right now,” he said.
However, Ivey believes that could change as the construction industry begins to embrace the advantages of robotics.
“I think we’re on the precipice of one of the most exciting things I’ve seen in a number of years in the construction space,” he said. “I believe this technology can save jobs. Buildings are not getting cheaper, but people want to pay less for them. How do we maintain productivity and profitability and create a great product? The only way to do that is through technology.”
Finally, products like Spot can help ease longstanding fears of machines replacing human workers, said Sophia Zelov, industry engagement manager for AEC with Autodesk Technology Centers.
“The usability and accessibility of something like Spot is really enticing because it’s breaking down those barriers of human innateness to be fearful of something like this,” she said.
Trey Barrineau is the Managing Editor, Publications for NAIOP. In this role, he supervises day-to-day operations of Development magazine.