How an Alabama General Contractor Partnered with Tech Industry Leaders to Automate 360-Degree Visual Documentation

October 13, 2020

An Alabama-based general contractor, a Boston-based robotics company and a San Francisco-based drone software developer may seem unlikely partners. But a recent collaboration between Brasfield & Gorrie, Boston Dynamics, and DroneDeploy spanned both coasts and the Deep South and resulted in a construction technology breakthrough.

The Backstory

At Brasfield & Gorrie, we’ve been eager to deploy mobile terrestrial robotics in construction for years. We saw the potential for these robots to capture data and free up employees to focus on more complex activities. But wheeled and track-based systems lacked the flexibility necessary for a complex and changing construction environment. We recognized Boston Dynamics’ agile mobile robot Spot as the first potentially viable robotics platform for a construction environment. Seeing the potential to automate data capture on our jobsites, we applied to Boston Dynamics’ Spot Early Adopter Program in September 2019.

Robotics Competition Paves the Way

Our application to this exclusive program was bolstered by a recent in-house robotics competition that demonstrated our commitment to innovation. Earlier in 2019, Virtual Design + Construction teams across our offices were challenged to program a DJI RoboMaster to follow a repeatable path through the office, stop at predetermined locations to capture 360-degree photos and upload them to a cloud-based construction data management platform. The teams weren’t allowed to do anything that would void the robot’s warranty, which proved challenging; the RoboMaster is equipped with only a low-resolution camera and a laser, not a 360-degree camera. And at the time, the RoboMaster relied on a drag-and-drop, block-based graphical programming system with limited functionality rather than typical text-based code. VDC Coordinator Grayson Savage, who was on the winning team, was inspired by fiber optics and used the laser to alert a small computer when it was time to take a photo.

Relationships Create Recipe for Innovation

When we learned that longtime partner DroneDeploy was also applying for the Boston Dynamics Early Adopter program, it made sense to partner for this effort. Brasfield & Gorrie would focus on building the appropriate hardware and automating the collection and capture, with DroneDeploy working on data upload, processing, hosting, and interaction.

The Approach

Similar to our RoboMaster challenge, we ran into constraints with what we could and could not access within Boston Dynamics’ systems and had to think creatively to develop solutions. We used Boston Dynamics’ Spot software development kit to interface with the robot and give it instructions on where to walk and when to start and stop. We then developed our own payloads, or external hardware, which sit on board the robot to give commands to the camera and upload the data. “I really love working in the space where hardware and software meet, designing circuit boards and programming microcontrollers to make physical things happen in the real world,” Grayson said.

While partnering with DroneDeploy, Brasfield & Gorrie team members quickly made headway on several fronts, including a power distribution board to support on-board cameras and computers and a web-based mission app to give Spot his marching orders. By sharing Spot’s battery power, we could be sure the payloads would not die while Spot continued to run. This would be essential if Spot were set to run autonomously through the night, collecting data and taking progress photos. The Brasfield & Gorrie team also developed an environmental sensor board, which ties into the power board and maps hazardous gasses, particulates, silica, dangerous sound levels, and extreme temperatures and humidity around jobsites. This has the potential to be integrated into the DroneDeploy map as an additional data layer, which could provide critical safety notifications.

“When looking for early adopter partners to develop workflows for deploying Spot in the field, Brasfield & Gorrie was an obvious choice,” said Brian Ringley, Construction Technology Manager at Boston Dynamics. “They assembled the ideal innovation team that included members who understood both the challenges of construction site monitoring and the latent opportunities for process automation, and they had the complementary technical skill sets in hardware and software development to ensure they could take full advantage of the Spot SDK to extend the robot’s capabilities in dynamic environments. Brasfield & Gorrie truly understands how to maximize the business value of emerging construction technologies.”

The Breakthrough

This collaboration between Brasfield & Gorrie, DroneDeploy, and Boston Dynamics produced a unique way to use Spot with the new DroneDeploy 360 Walkthrough workflow, an end-to-end construction documentation solution. Spot autonomously captures and uploads larger quantities of data with more frequency and repeatability as compared to traditional methods, and DroneDeploy helps make sense of the data.

DroneDeploy 360 Walkthrough is more efficient, cost-effective and safe, and it frees up project engineers to focus on tasks that require their expertise. Brasfield & Gorrie already uses 360-degree photography, captured by employees, for documentation and inspection on projects, and we see robotic automation as the obvious evolution of the current time-consuming process.

A man smiling while working on electronic equipment in an office setting with various tools and computers on the desk, embodying the spirit of tech industry leaders.

Grayson Savage’s passion for robotics dates to his youth when he spent the first paycheck from his high school job on a microcontroller development kit. While studying aerospace engineering in college, Grayson interned with Brasfield & Gorrie. He caught the attention of the VDC group when he wrote software to automate the time-consuming task of organizing and updating requests for information for a large hospital project. His program processed 100 RFIs in about five minutes. Grayson joined the company’s VDC team in 2015 and soon conducted research and development on a robot to help automate the MEP and drywall layout processes. He presented this research at the 2016 International Society for Automation and Robotics in Construction conference. Grayson’s passion for and expertise in robotics continues to advance our innovation efforts.