2021 Fall Academic Recognition Program

2021 Fall Academic Recognition Program
Pictured are Eddie Stewart, Eric Wetzel, Richard Burt, Betty McWhorter, Earlon McWhorter, and Vini Nathan
Prior to each home game during the 2021 football season, Auburn is recognizing on the field extraordinary Auburn programs and people leading life-changing research, industry partnerships, community engagement and an elevated student experience. On Saturday, Auburn recognized the McWhorter School of Building Science in the College of Architecture, Design and Construction for its robotic dog, Mac. Pictured, from left, are Caddell Construction President and CEO Eddie Stewart, Assistant Professor of Building Science Eric Wetzel, Richard Burt, head of the McWhorter School of Building Science, Betty McWhorter, Earlon McWhorter, namesake of the McWhorter School of Building Science and 1968 Auburn graduate, and Vini Nathan, McWhorter Endowed Chair and dean of the College of Architecture, Design and Construction.

Robotic dog advancing research, teaching, outreach as part of cutting-edge construction technology evolution

by Neal Reid

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 it 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 in charge of the Mac program.

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.”

Tech 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,” Wetzel said. “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 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?”

Wetzel identified three main ways robots 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.”

Mac the robotic dog at a construction site.
The College of Architecture, Design and Construction’s robotic dog Mac already has been used to gather data at construction sites on Auburn’s campus.

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.”

Wetzel’s 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 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.

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

Last updated: February 24, 2022