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By John Biggs
December 10, 2018
Robots come in many forms. There are the virtual, computer-dwelling artificial intelligence systems making decisions based on data and algorithms. There are also the actual oil-and-steel robots laying bricks or hanging sheetrock. And let’s not forget the self-flying drones buzzing overhead performing thermal imaging or monitoring the jobsite.
As those technologies have matured, seeing them in action has become almost expected, even commonplace. But a robot dog that freely walks around a construction site surveying the project and carrying objects would probably still turn some heads.
Boston Dynamics’ SpotMini is a four-legged electric robotic dog with an uncanny sense of perception and an impressive range of motion, thanks to its onboard 3D vision and its 17 distinct joints. It stands a bit under three feet tall, weighs just 66 pounds, and gets about 90 minutes on a charge, according to the company. It has an arm that can manipulate objects, and an array of cameras that help it navigate its surroundings. It operates nearly silently, and its movement is frankly a little unsettling, so brace yourself, because they might someday become workplace companions for construction workers.
This slightly terrifying video was recently put out by the company to promote its push into more widespread commercial use. In it, the SpotMini confidently strides around an active construction site, easily navigating steep stairways, narrow hallways, and piles of debris and other obstacles littering a site run by Takenaka Corp. in Tokyo. Now owned by Japan-based Softbank Robotics, Boston Dynamics has set an ambitious goal to be producing 1,000 SpotMinis per year by July 2019.
Marc Raibert, Boston Dynamics’ founder, sees a real future for the commercial viability of the SpotMini. He recently said at a computer expo in Germany that the company is setting its sights on four main categories: construction, delivery, security and home assistance, according to Inverse. With their video specifically showing off the SpotMini’s ability to make its way through a construction site, you could extrapolate that adoption by construction firms is high on the company’s wishlist.
“Smart robotics are going to be a key driver of the next stage of the information revolution, and Marc (Raibert) and his team at Boston Dynamics are the clear technology leaders in advanced dynamic robots,” SoftBank Group Chairman Masayoshi Son said in a statement announcing the sale.
The company originated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1992, initially focusing on projects for the military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It was briefly part of Google’s X division for advanced projects, but this will be its first major play to market their robots commercially, although no price has been announced as of yet.
SpotMini is not Boston Dynamics’ only robot. It also has an impressive humanoid robot called Atlas, which boasts exceptional balance and two-handed mobile manipulation. You can see another somewhat eerie video of the Atlas performing complex movements like jumping and landing on elevated platforms of varying heights and even doing back flips. As impressive as its abilities are, it’s not clear if it will ever be sold commercially.
So far, the SpotMini’s applications in construction seem centered around carrying items, manipulating objects and surveying sites. Still, the electric dog might have a few tricks up its robot sleeve that one day makes it a versatile and useful addition to a company’s workforce. And best of all, you’ll never have to clean up after it.
As long as firms struggle to find enough human workers to meet the demands on their services, they will likely keep looking to mechanical help to make up for the shortfall. Whatever form they take, robots have found a permanent place in construction, and the industry's gradual acceptance of a robotic future is laying the groundwork for a fruitful relationship with its burgeoning artificial workforce.
future of construction
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December 31, 2018