A Boston Dynamics-built Robot is helping Brasfield & Gorrie Roam Construction sites

For the folks at Brasfield & Gorrie, Spot (the robot) is the answer to the most basic of problems for the construction giant — how to be more efficient and proficient on a job site.

There’s a new guy on the team at Brasfield & Gorrie.

It’s not politically correct to judge by appearances, but his chiseled features and striking figure are pretty hard to ignore. His legs are on the skinny side — he weighs in at about 80 pounds — but his stamina is the envy of his co-workers. He’s quiet and smart, and even with his lack of education, he’s a leader in his field and able to observe things on construction sites that those he works with — and those who came before him — just can’t see or get to.

They call him “Spot,” and he’s a robot.

“I joke that it’s my ‘Star Wars’ droid,” says Jake Lovelace, innovation and operational technology specialist at Brasfield & Gorrie.

And he’s not far from the truth. With Lovelace or another handler at the controls from near or far, Spot can amble around construction sites, scaling staircases and mountains of concrete or wading through patches of water or mud, all the while taking photos of the site for the humans who are working on it.

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For the folks at Brasfield & Gorrie, Spot is the answer to the most basic of problems for the construction giant — how to be more efficient and proficient on a job site. The Birmingham-based firm collaborated with Boston Dynamics and DroneDeploy, using the robot the former created and developing software with the latter to adapt it to a construction site.

“Boston Dynamics came out with Spot, their first product aimed at commercial use — industries like construction, oil and gas, mining — and as soon as I read they were seeking early adopters for this, I was quick to submit an application,” says Hunter Cole, manager of innovation and operational technology at Brasfield & Gorrie.

Brasfield & Gorrie ‘obvious choice’

Boston Dynamics, a leader in the tech field, was quick to partner with Brasfield & Gorrie, which has been using flying drones on construction sites since 2014. Brasfield & Gorrie is Alabama’s largest general contractor and ranks in the top 25 nationally.

“When looking for early adopter partners to develop workflows for deploying Spot in the field, Brasfield & Gorrie was an obvious choice,” said Brian Ringley, Boston Dynamics’ construction technology manager. “They assembled the ideal innovation team that included members who understood both the challenges of construction site monitoring and the latent opportunities for process automation, and they had the complementary technical skill sets in hardware and software development to ensure they could take full advantage of the Spot SDK to extend the robot’s capabilities in dynamic environments. Brasfield & Gorrie truly understands how to maximize the business value of emerging construction technologies.”

Brasfield & Gorrie took Spot and, with the help of DroneDeploy, trained him to work construction sites. Over the last year, they have created the DroneDeploy 360 Walkthrough workflow, in which Spot autonomously captures and uploads photos and other data around the site.

“Flying drones aren’t very good at flying inside, but most construction is happening inside,” Cole says. “For us to capture both the inside and the outside at a site is important.”

At present, Brasfield & Gorrie and other contractors and builders simply take photos of the inside of a site, sometimes with a 360-degree camera. And they do it often, sometimes daily or weekly, tracking the progress of a project from start to finish.

“To do that might take a project manager two to four hours per week to capture those photos, and that adds up week after week,” says Cole, who graduated from Mississippi State University in 2011 in mechanical engineering and has been with Brasfield & Gorrie since 2015. “It’s also kind of mundane and tedious. It’s kind of ripe for automation. The cost-justification is there, but it’s also a task a robot is better suited for. We want our people freed up to do things only people can do, like solve complex problems.”

Spot — who has already visited job sites in Florida, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama — also keeps humans safer, because he can travel in hazardous areas that might be unsafe for others.

Project is ‘dream come true’

For Lovelace, a 2015 Auburn civil engineering graduate, writing code for Spot and collaborating with Boston Dynamics and DroneDeploy has been a “dream come true.”

“It started with a little internal challenge,” he recalls. “Before we got Spot, our boss bought a bunch of toy radio-controlled robots and said before we go out and buy the real expensive robot, let’s get a proof-of-concept with these cheap ones. We had a loop of track that we ran around the office, taking pictures with these toy robots. Now, we’re on to our real industrial robots.”

Lovelace is basically self-taught when it comes to coding and programming. “I had done a little coding during the early days of the internet, but not like this,” he says. “I was very much a nerd, so that helped out a little bit. I always tell people my 10-year-old self would be so proud of me right now, with the toys I get to play with at work — VR (virtual reality) headset one day and playing with a robot the next.”

Those “toys,” though, are solving big problems, Lovelace says.

“Spot’s cool and great, but it’s more than just Spot,” he says. “It’s about a whole robotics platform being used on a job site. We’re looking for those areas where we can really contribute to job site operations.”

Lovelace continues to discover things he can do with Spot. “The coolest thing for me is when I see it doing something completely on its own, where my code is controlling it,” he says. “To see it get up on its own, make its own decisions about where it’s going to go, what it’s going to do. It’s kind of scary to relinquish that control, but it’s also kind of cool.”

Lovelace admits he has a soft spot in his heart for Spot, who the folks at Brasfield & Gorrie have nicknamed “Benji” (B and G, for Brasfield & Gorrie).

“It’s kind of scary looking, and personifying it helps with that a little bit,” he says. “If you can think of it as a literal dog, it makes it more relatable.”

The goal would be to have a litter of Spots — enough robots to have them attached to a job site full-time. For that to happen, though, the current price tag (Boston Dynamics sells Spot for $74,500) will have to come down.

“Spot is an expensive piece of hardware right now,” Cole says. “Are we going to purchase 15 of them this year? Absolutely not. But I’ll be shocked if we don’t buy more in future years. The one we currently have is robust enough for military use or nuclear use, and we may not need one that robust. I think they’ll optimize it for construction customers. The software will get better and help us automate.”

And Spot?

“Spot will be on the job site, sleeping under the construction trailer,” Cole says. “Just like a real dog.”

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