Auburn University’s robotic dog advancing research, teaching, outreach as part of cutting-edge construction technology evolution

One-of-a-kind robotics tool paving way for future of construction industry, instruction

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Aside from Auburn’s beloved mascot Aubie, perhaps nothing draws a crowd on campus these days more than the university’s coolest new addition—a robotic dog named Mac.

The Boston Dynamics-designed, four-legged agile robot—purchased by the McWhorter School of Building Science, or BSCI, in the College of Architecture, Design and Construction, or CADC—is a magnet for attention on the Plains. Weighing in at 80 pounds and standing almost 3 feet tall, Mac, named in honor of 1968 Auburn graduate Earlon McWhorter, whose name adorns the school, is a popular attraction wherever he goes.

“It draws a crowd, and people are always curious about Mac and want their photo taken with it,” said Eric Wetzel, an assistant professor of building science.

Purchased this spring by BSCI, Mac already has been used on construction sites and in classrooms at Auburn. Wetzel said the robot has been utilized in research experiments on active construction sites, including the Tony and Libba Rane Culinary Science Center, conducting autonomous laser scans of rooms to capture completion percentage and provide 3D imaging useful to project managers and educators alike.

“We’re trying to use Mac in all three phases of the university mission—research, service and teaching,” said Wetzel, a 2019 recipient of the Alumni Undergraduate Teaching Excellence Award from the Auburn Alumni Association. “This is a very novel technology, especially on construction sites. Basically any research question we develop is untested because we’ve never had autonomous robots on jobsites like we have now. We are looking at different applications and payloads and continue to explore a number of different research questions.”

Mac is a great tool on construction sites because its mobility and autonomous mode enable the robot to enter and scan a room on its own while avoiding obstacles and providing comprehensive and detailed data that can be studied and directly applied to projects. Mac’s autonomous LiDAR scans can free up personnel such as field engineers to handle other tasks on a jobsite.

“Historically, LiDAR scans are a very time-consuming effort for a field engineer, so by autonomously sending Mac out to execute those scans, it alleviates that time the field engineer would need to do it,” said Wetzel, who earned his Master of Building Construction at Auburn before completing his doctorate at Virginia Tech. “The fact that Mac is a quadruped, allows it to go up and down stairs, deal with rough terrain at a construction site and step over and avoid things. This type of robot is the first that can actively be deployed on a construction site without getting stuck in mud or blocked by things sitting on the ground.”

LiDAR scans help researchers and construction managers monitor progress of a project or site with high-quality, dynamic images.

“It’s a newer form of advanced technology that allows you to capture spatial dada of a site or structure thoroughly and accurately,” said Junshan Liu, an associate professor in the McWhorter School of Building Science and co-author with Wetzel on a comparative analysis report involving Mac. “It’s a really comprehensive capture, down to two millimeters in detail, and you’re able to get a snapshot of a building as it is at that moment. That documentation is really important for historical buildings and also for new construction.

“LiDAR scanning work is labor-intense that requires a commitment from a lot of people, so having Mac is great because we could just send him to a job site programmed to do image capturing at night when there’s no one working. That can really improve productivity, and for circumstances that may be hazardous or dangerous, we can send Mac to places people shouldn’t go because they’re unsafe.”

Part of a revolution

Mac is part of a revolution of sorts in the construction world, with robotics being used more and more with each passing year as technology continues to improve.

“Within the last 10 years, we’ve seen this explosion in construction robotics,” said Wetzel, who worked for years in the water and wastewater industry. “Mac is representative of this shift, and it’s partially because the tech is good enough that it can now be useful on construction sites. Construction is suffering from a massive skilled labor shortage and one that doesn’t seem to have a solution in the short term.

“If you can’t find people to lay brick or tie rebar, and we have the tech for robots, why not let robots do some of the work that’s repetitive and hard on the human body? Quite frankly, it’s better for humans not to be bent over all day tying rebar mats, so why not let a robot that doesn’t have sore muscles and achy feet that can work 24/7—as long as it has the power to do so—execute those scopes of work?”

Jake Lovelace, an innovation and operations tech specialist at the Brasfield & Gorrie LLC, agrees. The Birmingham-based construction firm—whose name adorns the CADC’s Gorrie Center—has a Boston Dynamics SPOT dog of its own they call Benji.

“I believe we are at the beginning of a construction ‘renaissance,’” Lovelace said. “The industry is seeing rapid growth of technology that is transforming traditional manual workflows into data-driven autonomous processes. While ‘hands in the dirt’ will always be essential, digital innovators are being given an important seat at the table to manage the ever-growing amount of data needed to build a successful project.

“The task is not an easy one—a typical job site is a very dynamic environment and host to many hazardous activities, making robotic automation extremely difficult to achieve. But I believe this is why innovators are naturally drawn to the space—they enjoy the challenge.”

Robotics has been used on construction sites in recent years for things like tying rebar, finishing drywall or even laying brick, as was the case with a robot named SAM—short for Semi-Automated Mason—that was utilized on the construction of the Jay and Susie Gogue Performing Arts Center at Auburn University. The potential, Wetzel says, for Mac and the field of robotics in the construction realm is seemingly endless.

“This robot has only been commercially available for a little over year, and Boston Dynamics released it with non-specific applications in mind,” Wetzel said. “So, we’re just filling in the gaps of what it could be doing on a job site. Because Mac has a programmable interface, we can write programs to get it to do things it’s not inherently designed to do.

“For example, we are currently working with the RFID Lab at Auburn to develop a ‘follow protocol’ in which Mac will follow a human around and execute actions without the need for the handheld device used to control the robot in manual mode. This human-robot collaboration, sometimes referred to as ‘cobot,’ is applicable to construction and beyond.”

Wetzel identified three main ways robotics like Mac can be utilized in the construction world.

“If you think in generalities, robotics is most effective in three scenarios—a repetitive task that humans don’t necessarily like doing; a task that is harmful to humans that leads to injuries; and environments that are dangerous, like caves or buildings that are condemned,” he said. “When you look at a robot like Mac, you can check the box on all three.”

Wetzel said he and his team hope to use Mac to collect data, conduct research that is shared with Boston Dynamics to improve future generations of its robots and publish papers about their discoveries made with the young technology.

“We’re in the first frontier of this, because there’s nothing out there that’s currently published,” Wetzel said. “Current literature is largely researchers conjecturing about applications, but now that a few of us have robots, we’re running experiments for the first time.”

One-of-a-kind outreach, research tool

Not only is Mac a great tool Wetzel and his team are deploying out in the field, but also is a one-of-a-kind outreach and recruiting tool for CADC, BSCI and the university. Wetzel has visited elementary schools, shared the robot with the International Officers School from Maxwell Air Force Base, was recently interviewed for a documentary on robotics and was part of the College of Sciences and Mathematics’ SCORE Robotics Camp at Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum this summer.

“It’s massive,” Wetzel said of Mac’s outreach potential. “I could walk into a classroom at a high school or middle school and give the coolest spiel about building science, and a month later, students won’t remember me or maybe even what I talked about. But if I walk in with a robot, they’ll remember the robot. So, there’s no way you can quantify the impact on a 10-year-old, 12-year-old or 15-year-old.”

A visit from a robot like Mac, Wetzel says, could spark a student’s interest in the field and even help them choose a career path.

“They’re going to remember that robot when they’re picking schools or picking programs,” Wetzel said. “They may not even want to go to college, which is fine, but they may think, ‘You know, construction seems more interesting than I thought it would be,’ and so they end up going to a trade school and maybe becoming a mason next to a robot like SAM, or even end up controlling SAM.

“These are all things that can cascade just from a simple visit to a school with a robot. It’s almost unquantifiable to change someone’s perspective on something.”

Even though Mac and his payloads carried a six-figure price tag, Wetzel said the potential returns are priceless.

“It’s really hard to put a return-on-investment figure on a robot that can potentially get students interested in building science and construction, publishing really novel information and having expertise that people in the industry and other universities respect,” Wetzel said. “What’s the ROI on having students who can actually control, feel and see a robot in construction, as opposed to just being taught about it in a classroom? These things are not really measurable by monetary standards.”

From a research standpoint, having Mac out in the field at Auburn allows Boston Dynamics and other industry leaders the chance to process never-before-seen data that is crucial to the technology’s evolution.

“We’re all sharing, collaborating and giving feedback, and that information gets back to Boston Dynamics,” Wetzel said. “When limitations or problems arise, they build the hardware and software to mitigate problems we run into and improve the technology. You have this collaboration between the manufacturer and the end user, and so you’ll just keep seeing evolutions of these robots to be more and more useful on construction sites.”

Wetzel and his team can’t help but be energized by the chance to work with Mac and explore new horizons of research and discovery.

“As a researcher, it’s a dream type of research assignment,” Wetzel said. “To have such a novel piece of equipment at our disposal at the McWhorter School of Building Science, it doesn’t happen that frequently. Very rarely do you get the opportunity to work on something that’s so new and every experiment you run is something that’s not been done before.

“Not to mention, it’s a 3-foot robot that walks by itself. What’s cooler than that?”

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