Auburn University uses a robot dog, the Mac, to study the role of autonomous robots in civil engineering, an industry that, according to Assistant Professor Eric Wetzel, is underestimated for the use of cutting-edge technology.
Wetzel told EdScoop that after the robot arrived at the University of Alabama in March, researchers quickly began using it on construction sites. The four-legged robot, which is controlled by a hand-held device, can use lasers to scan the inside of a building to create a 3D model and take panoramic photos. This data is uploaded to the control unit or saved on a memory card in the robot.
The Mac can autonomously scan and avoid obstacles, but requires manual instructions as to which rooms to go to and what to scan. According to Auburn’s website, researchers are working with other departments to enable the robot to autonomously follow a human.
Mobile robots like Mac can automate some tasks for engineers, Wetzel said, like creating maps of systems for heating and cooling, plumbing, and wiring.
“It’s also good for mapping existing structures,” he said. “So if you have to demolish a demolished building but are afraid to send people in, you can get a 3D model of that room and we’re talking millimeter accuracy here.”
The researchers are also looking at how the robot can do these tasks without a human behind the controls, but the mapping “just scratches the surface,” which is what this technology can do, Wetzel said. He said the researchers are interested in whether the robot can perform security checks or check fences and structures after a storm.
“Really, anything that could be used with an autonomous mobility platform that could be visualized and that a robot can process or at least send back the data that a human can process is kind of fair game at the moment,” said Wetzel.
Researchers observed that the robot developed by Boston Dynamics was more productive on construction projects than human workers using tripod-based scanners, Wetzel said. The robot can walk from room to room on its own instead of using a tripod that has to be moved manually. There are some flaws, Wetzel said, as the robot is shorter than a camera on a tripod, which means that some objects will be cut off during the scan. The robot’s body also casts a shadow in the scan, he said, but that can be fixed by doing multiple scans after moving the robot a little.
Along with the research applications, Mac is demonstrating the way the construction sciences implement technology, Wetzel said. The robot is housed in Auburn’s McWhorter School of Building Science and named after the school’s namesake, Earlon McWhorter. Auburn students can take part in the research and use the robot on projects, he said, but the dog is also great for connecting with local K-12 students in hopes of recruiting them into the field. Students at Auburn robotics summer camps were able to meet Mac and see drones and augmented reality glasses used in construction, Wetzel said.
“[It’s] To get young people excited about what the construction industry will look like in the next few years and what they can do, ”said Wetzel. “The construction industry is no longer just shovels, hammers and hard hats. It’s tech-heavy and I don’t think anyone is aware of that. I don’t think people drive past construction sites all the time and nobody really pays attention to: ‘Does this thing work by itself?’ “