When Foster + Partners brought Spot to a London project site for the first time, construction workers and office personnel temporarily morphed into amateur paparazzi and star-struck fans.
“Whenever we were on the building site, the builders would all have their camera phones out,” says Adam Davis, a partner in the firm’s Applied Research + Development (ARD) group.
“The first day we had the robot in the office, somebody ran to hug it,” recalls Martha Tsigkari, also a partner in the ARD group.
This sort of reaction is, perhaps, understandable. While millions of people have watched Spot traverse tricky terrain in online videos, very few have seen the advanced quadruped robot in real life. But the ARD group at Foster + Partners didn’t bring in Spot so they could marvel at a novelty. Rather, the practice put the robot through rigorous, real-world testing to prepare for the day when Spot’s appearance at a building site will seem as ordinary as the arrival of a bulldozer or a forklift do today.
“There is playfulness in this robot that makes people want to run toward it and play with it,” says Tsigkari. “But our interest was to see how we could best utilize its unique abilities to monitor progress on construction sites.”
“I actually look forward to a day when Spot would be common enough, at least on a building site, that it wouldn’t be something of note – that people would just shrug and say, ‘Yeah, I saw the same thing yesterday, and I’ll see it again tomorrow,’” Davis says.
Through their testing, the ARD group at Foster + Partners confirmed their initial instincts that Spot has a valuable role to play in the future of building design and construction – particularly for site scanning. “This was possibly the most exciting robot that we ever worked with,” Tsigkari says. “The technical achievement of Spot is incredible.”
“It’s not a matter of buzz,” she adds. “You need to be able to see the potential beyond that – the possibilities that these technologies will create for the future of construction.”
A Good Pairing
Founded in 1967 by Norman Foster, Foster + Partners is a global studio with areas of emphasis including sustainable architecture, engineering, urbanism, and industrial design. The firm employs 1,500 staffers in 14 offices around the globe and has completed work on projects on six continents. In fact, the practice’s work could accurately be described as “inter-planetary,” as Foster + Partners has worked on projects backed by NASA and the ESA to design potential habitats for both the Moon and Mars.
“We often say that we work from the scale of entire cities down to the detail of a door handle,” Davis says.
The ARD group contains a number of “robot freaks” who had closely followed the work of Boston Dynamics, says Tsigkari. The opportunity to work together stemmed from a chance meeting at the NXT BLD conference in London during the summer of 2019.
“They were presenting Spot, so we approached the Boston Dynamics team, very enthused not only about what was in front of us, but about the potential the robot had for the construction industry,” Tsigkari says. “A little while later, we got a phone call from Boston Dynamics asking whether we would like to be part of their Early Adopters program for Spot, to which we said: ‘Yes, we definitely want to do that.’”
‘A Fantastic Opportunity’
Early on, the ARD group identified site scanning as a potentially valuable application for Spot. Along with the typical surveying work that goes into most projects, Foster + Partners sometimes requires additional scans for particularly complex geometries. Also, Davis says, it would be helpful for designers and contractors to receive regular updates about the progress of building sites, including information related to materials procurement and logistics.
“Even for all the material things that are on a building site that aren’t necessarily part of the finished construction, it can still be very valuable to have a record of where those things are and when,” Davis notes.
The team identified the Battersea Power Station mixed-use redevelopment in South London as an effective testing location. Foster + Partners designed the scheme, also developing tools to help optimize massing for factors such as daylight. The site, still under construction, sits near the Foster + Partners office along the Thames.
“It was a fantastic opportunity for us to actually be onsite, and be able to take as-built scans to compare against the design models as the site was evolving,” says Tsigkari.
The team used Spot in February of 2020 to create scans of the lower floors of the project, where partitions had already begun to go up and MEP systems were being integrated. The team also used Spot to create scans of a floor at the Foster + Partners offices, which were being renovated. These scans were imported into Avvir, a cloud-based software that quantifies progress and validates the accuracy of construction compared to the intended design by analyzing the reality capture scans against the Building Information Model (BIM).
The testing process gave the team the opportunity to try out both Spot’s driver control system and autonomous walking capability, to assess the robot’s ability to navigate around obstacles, and to gauge Spot’s capacity for handling difficult terrain and accessing areas that are difficult for human workers to reach.
“What the robot does right now – we’ve never encountered this with any other equivalent hardware before. We might have seen things on an experimental level, but definitely not on a commercial level.”
- Martha Tsigkari, Applied Research + Development Partner, Foster + Partners
The team was immediately impressed with Spot’s ability to navigate a challenging environment. “On some days, there was standing water on the floor slabs that were less far along in construction,” Davis notes. “There were a number of areas that were boarded up, where there was effectively a void below. If you actually stop and think about it as a robotics challenge, it’s a change of surface, it’s a change of vibration. There are a lot of decisions to be made for a system that’s operating autonomously or semi-autonomously.”
Davis notes that the project site featured obstacles of various sizes, such as pipes, and that the robot often needed to walk through narrow openings to get from one place to another. “I was surprised at how well Spot did,” he says. “It was remarkable.”
Tsigkari says the team was particularly impressed by Spot’s ability to reassess its route when it encounters obstacles. “What the robot does right now – we’ve never encountered this with any other equivalent hardware before,” she says. “We might have seen things on an experimental level, but definitely not on a commercial level.”
The firm’s partnership with Boston Dynamics, which Tsigkari calls “almost impeccable,” was key to the ARD group’s success with testing. “Every time we completed a scan with the robot, our process improved, and a lot of that had to do also with their support,” she says. “If we had a problem we would contact them, and they provided a fix or gave us a solution in time for the next round of tests. Their reaction time fast-tracked the process enormously. We can't speak highly enough of all the good people in Boston Dynamics that we’ve been working with.”
“The level of enthusiasm that they bring is just really obvious,” says Davis. “It’s true of everybody that we’ve interacted with from the company.”
The highest business value that the Foster + Partners team uncovered during testing is Spot’s ability to generate consistent, repeated scans of the same site over time. Davis notes that it would typically be faster for a human surveyor to complete a single site scan than to get Spot up and running at a new location. However, he says, the robot is able to conduct subsequent scans of the same site much more quickly and economically.
“We don’t quibble with the fact that a person could do this once with a tripod and do it more quickly,” Davis says. “But as soon as you’ve done it a few times – and we do see value in doing some scans over and over again – the value proposition quickly changes to favor the robot.”
Tsigkari notes that disruptive technologies like Spot often face push-back, but she says that companies put themselves in a better position by embracing change than by resisting it. “Disruptive technologies are often scary for some, but we feel that they shouldn’t be,” she says. “Rather, we should try to recognize their future impact in order to realize their potential. We’re much better served by understanding what these technologies are going to be doing for us and trying to incorporate them in our processes as early as possible.”
Davis sees potential training applications for Spot, with the robot giving more staffers the ability to access more building sites virtually. He says the robot may also help designers to assess their clients’ existing spaces to understand how the quality of space may influence factors like employee well-being and productivity. “We do a lot of work where we investigate our client’s existing premises,” he notes. “Being able to have that digital information in situations, where the client might not even have it themselves, can be particularly useful.”
Davis adds: “I think it’s going to have a tremendous impact.”