The Rise of the Co-working Robot: Robots target work site safety and efficiency

Published On
Oct 15, 2021

Job sites of the future are going to be better connected, with more tasks taking place off-site, while on-site robotics will be taking some of the most mundane and hazardous tasks. Workers on site will learn to navigate and share space with a growing amount of autonomous technology.

Technology companies seek to reduces types of work that lead to inattention, while keeping management aware of unsafe practices before an injury happens. One idea is to put robots where people are at risk and let them do simple tasks without human intervention.

Boston Dynamics, Waltham, Mass., has been working on the coordination of its four-legged robot, Spot, for conducting construction tasks. Spot can tackle a number of critical jobs in the electrical and general construction industry, said Brian Ringley, Boston Dynamics’ construction technology manager. Spot is becoming increasingly nimble in making its way through dynamic environments, including stairs and obstacles, and it has proven able to teach itself to navigate rough, uneven terrain.

spot coworking robot
Boston Dynamics’ Spot

Construction companies are already using Spot to capture site data with 360-degree images, video and laser scans for site progress monitoring and digital twin creation, he said.

That means the robot can be used to inspect and survey hazardous areas while keeping workers from having to access hard-to-reach locations or confined spaces that have higher injury risks. Its data collection capabilities also help detect and streamline solutions for health and safety issues.

Spot has support from partner companies, such as Sunnyvale, Calif.-based software firm Trimble, which integrates a variety of construction data collection technologies with the robot. Boston Dynamics and Trimble have jointly developed a solution that combines the robot’s autonomous mobility with Trimble’s data collection sensors (laser scanners and global navigation satellite system receivers).

Trimble also provides field control software to automate repetitive tasks such as routine site scans. That means sending the robot, for instance, to scan the job site each day to inspect for hazards before work begins. Image and scan data from programmed routes can be fed into downstream software to detect health and safety issues on the job site, Ringley said.

While the technology is being further developed, “Spot has been successfully deployed on a number of construction sites,” Ringley said, citing Turner Construction Co.’s project at 550 Washington Street, New York; multiple Brasfield & Gorrie project sites; and Foster + Partners’ Battersea Power Station project in London.

Connectivity to ensure data gets to management in real time is another effort. Robots that leverage job site connectivity is one of the many industry changes ahead, Ringley said. He foresees that as job sites become more digital, robots will require less remote monitoring. That will be due to the automated access to data and robots’ increasingly autonomous functionality. The robots will also eventually be able to communicate with each other.

“We will see more hardware interoperability and heterogeneous fleet management platforms emerge to help connect many different types of robots and other sensors and technologies in construction environments,” Ringley said.

Spot’s data also can create a work site’s digital twin, which gives managers access to real-time animation showing the sequence of construction and the safest and most efficient planning for everyone on-site.

On a more immediate level, however, automated robots with laser scanners and collaborative software are primarily used for evaluating human safety risks, said David Burczyk, construction robotics lead at Trimble. He said he has seen interest from the electrical contracting industry for this use.

Robots in the next few years can be expected to become co-workers on a job site, “so that they can take on the tasks that are unsafe or repetitive,” he said.

Hilti’s construction robot, Jaibot, marks and drills holes overhead. Programmed digitally, it operates semi-autonomously for more than eight hours on a battery charge.

“With Jaibot, a single worker can drill more than 500 holes in a day,” said Aidan Maguire, BU manager for measuring at Hilti, Plano, Texas. “The standard productivity for a crew of two workers using traditional methods is 50–80 holes. Jaibot increases worker productivity, significantly reduces health and safety risks and strain on workers bodies, and frees up electricians to focus on more valuable tasks.”

While electricians or other site workers conduct much of the build-out and installation, the robots would be doing personnel’s, even electricians’, more redundant work in the background.

RFID and IoT track supplies

Technology companies also forecast that receiving materials at work sites as they are being staged and accessed will require less staffing, reducing collisions and other injury risks. That results from automating the identity of each tool and material brought on-site. RFID readers or other internet of things (IoT) sensors at trailers, receiving docks, staging areas and throughout work sites read tagged items from a distance, so individuals don’t need to visually check what has been received or misplaced, and where.

For general contractors, subcontractors and some project owners, the data can be viewed in real time and historically to know where things are on-site and when something has entered an inappropriate area. Already, some large general contractors are using their innovation teams to see how RFID, IoT and robotics become part of their workflow. The rollouts are expected to follow. However, many technology options are still in proof-of-concept phases.

For any of the coming technologies, Burczyk said, most electrical contractors are in the education stage. As some larger contractors experiment with automation and robotics, electrical contractors are likely to gain the advantage of that research before working with the technologies themselves.

One challenge is power consumption. Batteries for robotics such as Spot can power the device for an average of 90–120 minutes and must then be recharged at a docking station. At that point, the data is uploaded, Burczyk said. The docking station is often the conduit for data to a local or cloud-based server, though in the future, 5G connections could mean capturing the data in real time while the robot moves around the job site.

Numerous technologies can be used in tandem in the connected work site of the future, according to Burczyk. While drones have become relatively ubiquitous to give contractors an aerial view, for instance, there are limitations around where they can fly.

Robots supplement with terrestrial views: walking into confined areas and viewing equipment and workspaces at eye level. So, there are areas where the two technologies can complement each other, he said. Trimble’s Cloud Engine software can consume data from all different sources. It has been available for more than two years, but with the restrictions around COVID-19, its use has recently been accelerated so people could get work done on-site without being there.

Utility companies are also using safety-based robotics for monitoring a substation: the robot easily moves through areas where it is unsafe for humans to work. With a high-resolution camera, these robots are conducting general maintenance work and inspections of electrical systems. They can also be found in other facilities such as nuclear energy generators and tunnels and enclosed spaces, while leveraging the onboard scanner to document what is on-site.

There are a variety of solutions for worker safety that focus more on the movement and behavior of workers. Triax Technologies, Norwalk, Conn., sells a work site safety solution that consists of RFID-enabled sensors worn by personnel on job sites and an array of receivers that communicate with those sensors to understand workers’ movements and predict potential hazards. That includes providing a real-time overview of an entire work site, and how workers are interacting with their space. For instance, Spot-r Clip, a wearable sensor, uses an accelerometer to identify if a worker has fallen. Foremen or safety managers can be alerted when that occurs, and a dashboard in the Spot-r software displays that individual’s location.

Looking ahead

Companies such as Trimble and Hilti expect to serve solutions to create work sites very different from the unconnected, human reporting-reliant ones today. Future applications may include using robots for wall layout, drywall applications and painting, while there may also be more robotics used in general to address labor shortages.

Still, the presence of a robot won’t be ubiquitous for some time. In fact, Burczyk has noticed that the presence of a dog-shaped robot becomes a spectacle initially, distracting workers as they get used to its presence. For that reason, robotics are often used in off-hours until that adjustment is made. The bottom line is reducing injuries.

In the coming years, “Robotics could fundamentally change the way this industry thinks about safety and efficiency,” Ringley said. “By helping complete repetitive, dangerous work more quickly and without risking human safety, robotic technology integration could be a catalyst for substantial decreases in work-related injuries.”

Builders are also hoping robots will eventually have a significant positive impact on operational efficiency, ultimately improving workflows in the building process. 

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