Research Beyond the Lab

It wasn’t all that long ago when robots belonged to the realm of science-fiction. Then researchers in academia and private labs spent decades testing and tinkering with rudimentary systems, eventually leading to a world in which robot arms could perform a myriad of tasks, but lacked the mobility to automate a wide variety of activities. Finally, in recent years, robots have achieved a level of mobility that has made them useful on actual job sites in industries like manufacturing and construction. 

But commercial success doesn’t mean that research and development efforts stop, of course. Rather, researchers are following robots into the field, tracking their progress, and helping to identify new opportunities to leverage the emerging technology within a wide range of industry sectors.

Kereshmeh Afsari, an assistant professor in the Myers-Lawson School of Construction at Virginia Tech, along with her team of graduate students and undergraduate researchers and Professor Walid Thabet, were among the first researchers to field test Spot, the quadruped robot from Boston Dynamics. Afsari partnered with Procon Consulting to bring Spot to three of the university’s construction projects, and her team spent months testing the robot’s inspection capabilities in real-world conditions. Getting out of the lab and onto actual construction sites, Afsari says, is key for pushing the robotics field beyond the realm of theory and producing practical insights from data generated in real-world environments.

The question we wanted to answer was whether this new technology could help to perform regular data collection with a 360-degree camera. We wanted to see if we could save human workers time, so that they can focus on more strategic jobs.

Kereshmeh Afsari, Assistant Professor, Myers-Lawson School of Construction at Virginia Tech

Monitoring Construction Progress

While Spot is being sold and used across a wide range of industries, Afsari’s research with the  robot focused specifically on construction progress monitoring. She notes that, of the $1.4 trillion in new building projects that are constructed in the U.S. each year, 53 percent are behind schedule, and 66 percent experience cost overruns. Inspections that are timely, thorough, and accurate can help to prevent these problems, but Afsari notes that human inspections are time-consuming and error prone.

“When the project is being built, there is no guarantee that people are building correctly based on the plans,” Afsari says. “If you don’t pick up on an error early on, you’re going to lose a lot of time and a lot of money in rework. The question we wanted to answer was whether this new technology could help to perform regular data collection with a 360-degree camera. We wanted to see if we could save human workers time, so that they can focus on more strategic jobs.”

Afsari notes that she and her students tried taking monitoring photos themselves, but they often lost track of what they were doing. “Construction is constantly changing,” she says. “As a human, you can forget where you have already gone on the jobsite, and you might just completely forget to take a picture from a certain room. With my students, we would forget where we had been after an hour—never mind two years into a construction project.”

Paul Ely, associate director of capital construction at Virginia Tech, says that the research team brought Spot to a series of three progressively more challenging projects. “We selected the most mature project to get started on, so there were fewer things for the robot to trip over – extension cords, ladders, things like that— because we wanted to understand its capabilities before we took it on to riskier sites.” Next, researchers brought Spot to a major renovation and new construction project. The mechanical, electrical, and plumbing work was done early on that project, giving the robot fewer human obstacles. The third and final project was a new residence hall building with academic and programming space.

Afsari and her team brought Spot to the sites weekly during the research period. After initially driving Spot around each site to chart a path, the team allowed the robot to operate exclusively in autonomous mode while they observed. Spot took 360-degree photographs as it made its rounds, and then transferred that data to the HoloBuilder construction progress management platform. 

Stephen DeVito, director of technology for Procon Consulting, says that existing monitoring processes typically fail to keep up with the pace of construction—leaving building owners and operators without important as-built data about their projects. “The problem with the job site today is that it is opaque,” DeVito says. “It’s the one thing in a project that you can’t really view openly. You can see the drawings during design, and you can get updates and inspection reports, but you never really see the whole site. It’s ironic. In the entire design and construction process, the one complete black box is the job site.”

Initially, Procon sought to solve this problem by mounting a 360-degree camera on inspectors’ hardhats. That move was a “game changer,” DeVito says, but it came with limitations. “A robot taking those pictures on a regular basis, more precisely, is going to give us better measurements. And if robots can work in dangerous conditions and improve safety for human workers, then that’s a big deal.” 

Putting Theory Into Action

Working alongside industry professionals helped researchers to arrive at more insights, more quickly, Afsari says. “Every two weeks, my team would meet with the Procon team to explain our progress and talk about what was next. We would ask them: ‘What are the issues? How can we address them?’”

Afsari and her team knew that Spot’s design would lend itself well to construction settings, and their research validated that the technology is capable of providing valuable assistance. The next step toward widespread use, she says, is figuring out how to overcome adoption hurdles. “Construction sites are very compatible with humans,” she says. “We are bipeds, and we can walk over the gaps, and so legged robots are more compatible with our environment than wheeled robots. There is no question that Spot can be a helpful piece of equipment in construction. So the question now is: How can we get Spot to the job site, in terms of legal requirements, in terms of safety requirements, in terms of teams knowing and wanting the robot? And what do construction teams really want the robot to do?”

A robot taking those pictures on a regular basis, more precisely, is going to give us better measurements. And if robots can work in dangerous conditions and improve safety for human workers, then that’s a big deal.

Stephen DeVito, Director of Technology, Procon Consulting

Looking Ahead

Boston Dynamics sees the partnership between Virginia Tech and Procon Consulting as a model for many academic-commercial research efforts. For construction innovation, college and university construction sites represent a ready-made, real-world laboratory setting that can help academics accelerate their research. And for contractors and consultants, these partnerships provide access to a wealth of specialized technical expertise that they otherwise wouldn’t have. 

“There’s practically an infinite amount of construction happening on college campuses,” Ed Colp, sales lead for academia and research at Boston Dynamics, notes. “Colleges and universities may turn to a business partner for robot funding or industry experience that can benefit their students and research teams, while private companies end up benefiting from a deeper technical bench that the school can provide. It’s a symbiotic relationship.”

A 2021 study, co-authored by Afsari and DeVito and based on her team’s research with Spot, both lays out the current usefulness of the robot at construction sites, and suggests further research. “This study can be useful to construction managers and inspectors to potentially reduce the manpower required in inspections of construction projects,” the study reads. “The findings of the study can help develop more solutions to facilitate remote construction inspection using autonomous mobile robots … Future studies may investigate extending this approach with immersive virtual reality and augmented reality solutions to provide an immersive experience to construction managers and owners of the construction project.”

Ely’s next goal towards the adoption of mobile robot technologies involves figuring out how to educate workers about the technology. “What we need to work on is the human factor, and how we get people to adopt a disruptive technology in this industry,” Ely says. “Any limitations of the technology itself are going to be worked out pretty rapidly.”


Procon Consulting focuses on providing collaborative solutions in program and project management. They granted Spot to Virginia Tech for this study.