Automated Connected & Immersive: The future of construction management

Published: 8 May 2020 - 9 p.m.
By: Dennis Daniel

If we had to paint a picture of what a construction site would look like in the near future, given the technology advancements we’ve made so far, it would most likely be a hybrid environment where construction processes would be significantly automated and humans working side by side with robots. Contractors would employ a combination of autonomous heavy equipment, bio-inspired and wheeled robots, drones, mixed reality devices, etc., to achieve higher productivity and safety in transporting materials and tracking jobsite progress, and all stakeholders would benefit from real-time visibility of the jobsite, making it significantly easier to monitor, measure and manage construction activity with actionable data.

This is not as futuristic as it seems, from what we’ve seen at the CONEXPO 2020 show. Never before has the construction industry attracted technology companies with a wide range of specialties such as software, robotics, electronics, and imaging and witnessed them collaborating to improve processes, productivity and safety. These likes of Microsoft, Boston Dynamics, and Trimble are investing in R&D and testing of automated and connected systems for construction, and pilot programmes are underway in the US and Europe. This article presents autonomous robots, mixed reality devices, and construction management software that are in the beta phase.

Bio-inspired autonomous robots for dull, dirty and dangerous works

Autonomous robots can play a significant role in construction, specifically in production and quality control workflows by enabling automation of routine, dangerous, and tedious tasks, reducing workload and improving safety.

The daily, repetitive job of a site supervisor could easily be done by an autonomous robot with the abilities of spatial perception, navigation and obstacle detection to go around and scan the site with high consistency to track progress and report it to the project stakeholders. However, any autonomous robot won’t do; a construction site is a spatially complex, constantly changing environment with obstacles, rough and uneven surfaces. This eliminates the possibility of using wheeled robots, and drones have limitations with regard to payload, battery life, line-of-sight regulations and applications in indoor environments.

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The Spot, the Boston Dynamics’ bio-inspired, dog-like robot with Trimble RPT600 and X7 payloads.

These challenges can be overcome with bio-inspired robots and collaborative robots (cobots) that can mimic human or animal movements to traverse different terrains, including climbing stairs with different payloads, and interact with humans.

Trimble has started pilot tests of construction applications with the Spot, a bio-inspired, dog-like robot developed by US-based engineering and robotics company Boston Dynamics. Trimble provides the payload, the scanner installed on top of the Spot, communication interface, and its construction domain expertise. The Spot can go where wheeled robots cannot, while carrying payloads with endurance far beyond aerial drones. The robot dog has a speed of 1.6 m/s, runtime of 90 min, swappable battery, payload capacity of 14 kg, and IP54 rating to withstand dusty and wet industrial environments.

On construction sites, the Spot can inspect progress on the sites, create digital twins, and compare as-built to BIM models. In oil and gas facilities, the robot can remotely inspect the facilities and improve awareness of plant operations.

Trimble and Boston Dynamics are also collaborating with Liechtenstein-based construction technology, software and services company Hilti Group to develop a proof of concept that integrates Trimble's and Hilti's construction management software solutions, GNSS technology and reality capture devices with Spot robot platform.

Equipped with Trimble's and Hilti's reality capture devices as its payload and directly communicating with a cloud-based construction management application, the Spot robot will be able to provide consistent output, deliver improved efficiency on repeatable tasks and enable up-to-date as-built data analysis. The autonomous, terrain-agnostic capabilities support the dynamic nature of the construction environment, enabling the robot to by-pass obstacles and maintain its defined path to support routine tasks such as daily site scans, progress monitoring, asset management and remote support. Multi-directional communication between the robot, Trimble's and Hilti's payloads and the cloud application support a continuous flow of information and closes the loop for the construction environment.

Deploying an integrated solution in the real-world environment doing dirty and dangerous work, before, during and after the construction stage is a common vision for the three companies, which can help drive the transformation of the construction industry, according to Boston Dynamics.

Almagor Aviad, senior director, emerging technologies (mixed-reality and brain-computer interface), Trimble, says: “Utilizing robots for routine tasks in hazardous environments to improve safety, efficiency, and data capture consistency is part of our digital transformation vision. We are excited for this latest collaboration and looking forward to the potential integration of our hardware and software solutions with the Boston Dynamics' Spot robot to enhance field-oriented workflows, reduce amount of rework and facilitate on-site tasks."
Trimble payloads that can installed on the Spot include laser scanners, GPS antennas, and gas sensors, depending on the application. At CONEXPO 2020, Trimble presented two Spot robots, each with a different payload - the X7 3D laser scanner and the RPT600 layout station.

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Almagor Aviad, senior director, emerging technologies (mixed-reality and brain-computer interface), Trimble.

The Spot robot with the payload walks around a construction site, scans its surroundings, captures data, and uploads it on the cloud to be analysed by a project manager or other stakeholders.

The Spot can be programmed to perform tasks repetitively by using waypoints with defined paths and boundaries. The robot moves from one waypoint to another avoiding obstacles without human guidance and conducts scans up to 80m with the X7 scanner around each waypoint.

“We believe the most common use cases for the Spot will be 3D laser scanning and rapid positioning for common layout jobs. With regard to daily reports, it’s easy to compare scans from two days to see the difference or work progress. The 360° images are highly accurate; they enable accurate measurements of distance or height from the images. In future, we'll see applications expanding to tasks such as tiling, drilling, and painting,” says Aviad.

In another collaboration, HoloBuilder, a US-based construction technology company that designs, develops, and sells enterprise SaaS software, has released SpotWalk, a new product integration with the Spot robot to bring autonomous 360° reality capture to construction projects.

Controlled by HoloBuilder's SpotWalk app, the Spot robot can walk job sites autonomously, capturing 360° images that record the progress of a construction project over time. The process allows for quality and accuracy control, giving contractors, partners, and owners a real-time digital record of the project. The integration creates repeatable, actionable data throughout all phases of a construction project.

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HoloBuilder's machine learning engine, SiteAI, analyses images captured by SpotWalk to get insight into the jobsite.

The SpotWalk app has two general modes. The first enables project teams to teach Spot the capture route simply by driving the robot via an intuitive smartphone interface. The second mode drives Spot autonomously on its trained path, taking pictures along the wway at defined capture locations, delivering immediate value to the construction project and workforce.

Mixed reality for connecting physical and digital worlds

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The Trimble XR10 with HoloLens 2 mixed reality headset.

Trimble and Microsoft have partnered to adapt the Microsoft mixed reality headset for construction applications. The worksite-ready mixed-reality solution enables workers to visualize 3D data on project sites for easier and more efficient planning, collaboration and reporting.

The Trimble XR10 is a customized version of the HoloLens 2. The headset has a flip-up visor, provides a 43° field-of-view, and comes with hand tracking technology and a 5-microphone array and bone conduction to provide clear 2-way communication in high ambient noise environments.

The XR10 works in combination with Trimble Connect for HoloLens, a cloud-based software that allows for open and collaborative communication across all stakeholder types, optimized to maximize the benefits of HoloLens 2.

“Out of the box, the HoloLens is not designed for construction environments because of its form factor. The XR10 is the only HoloLens 2 solution compatible with an industry standard hardhat and certified for use in safety controlled environments. The XR10 enables users to overlay 3D models and other digital project data onto the physical context of the jobsite. A site supervisor wearing the XR10 can interact with complex 3D data while talking and collaborating with a designer or project manager offsite. We opted for bone conduction to avoid blocking of the ears so that users are aware of their surroundings. The system supports gestures, gaze, and voice commands,” says Aviad.

Aviad indicates the potential of integrating the Spot and XR10 HoloLens; for instance, the XR10 could provide an immersive experince of spatial data captured by the Spot through an integrated workflow.

“One of the challenges we face on construction sites is real-time communication between the robot and humans, either on site or remotely. Mixed reality could solve this by providing a visual interface for better interaction between humans and robots,” says Aviad.

Combined workflows

Currently, site supervisors and project managers jump between multiple systems to keep track of daily production quantities, labor/equipment hours and equipment maintenance schedules. In spite of using all of these systems, they still do not have real-time visibility into progress on the jobsite and its impact on schedule/cost.

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Trimble WorksOS dashboard.

To solve this, Trimble has launched WorksOS, a software-as-a-service (SaaS) operating system that integrates data from Trimble and third-party providers across the entire civil construction project lifecycle, including estimating, scheduling, designs and the field. With WorksOS, users will be able to log into a single application to view real-time visibility of cut, fill, volume and compaction data to maximize jobsite productivity.

Trimble WorksOS will integrate Trimble Business Center, Trimble WorksManager, Trimble Siteworks Positioning System, Trimble Earthworks Grade Control Platform and Trimble Pulse Fleet and Equipment Management Software to bring industry-leading solutions together to benefit all phases of the construction lifecycle. Currently, Trimble WorksOS system is available for select users to participate in a beta program.

At CONEXPO 2020, Trimble also announced its Platform as a Service, an offering that gives contractors the ability to purchase select civil construction hardware and software solutions and continually upgrade those solutions with the latest innovations from Trimble. Bundled solutions include the Trimble Earthworks Grade Control Platform, Trimble Siteworks Positioning Systems, Trimble Correction Services and select office software.

"Contractors can now modernize large construction fleets and inventories without significant initial investment and the assurance that their technology will be continually updated with the latest innovations from Trimble," said Scott Crozier, vice president, Trimble Civil Engineering and Construction.

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