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Mobile robots in Shetland: Learnings from implementing 5G tech in construction sites

  • 8 minute read
  • Published by Crispin Moller on 27 Jul 2022
  • Last modified 20 Jul 2022
Construction is a cornerstone of our economy, yet there is undoubtedly change ahead.

One of the largest sectors, with 3.1m workers across the UK, only 10% of those are under 25. Challenges with recruiting and retaining a traditionally labour-intensive workforce for a growing sector - coupled with the increasing demand for digital adoption - is resulting in a new way of looking at operating.

One way is to make efficiencies with 5G technology solutions on-site, upskilling teams to work more efficiently using automation, and optimising peoples’ time away from repetitive and time-draining tasks.

We spoke to Colin Evison, Head of Innovation at BAM Nuttall, who has been leading the AMC2 (Accelerate, Maximise and Create for Construction) project with partners AttoCore and the Building Research Establishment (BRE).

Introducing AMC2

Colin: There are two sites we’re focusing on; the BAM Nuttall regional office in Kilsyth (North Lanarkshire, Scotland) where mobile coverage is poor, particularly indoors, and we’ve experimented with autonomous vehicles to maximise productivity of construction processes. 

The second site – and the one we’re talking about here – is significantly more remote; a construction project in Shetland, where BAM Nuttall is working on a major link to connect to the UK mainland electricity grid, and secure the islands’ renewable power supply via an SSE project.

Challenge first, technology second

There are lots of tech solutions, but we wanted to make sure we focused on the challenge at hand, rather than finding a fit for the tech.

One of the key, yet repetitive, surveying tasks at Shetland is creating a 3D model of the construction environment – a laser point cloud scan. This traditionally is completed using a tripod-mounted scanner that has to be manually moved every 10-15 minutes.

If you’ve employed a graduate engineer, flown them over from the mainland, put them up in lodgings for them to move a tripod, it doesn’t feel like a good use of resources. That’s what we focused on with Trimble, the survey equipment supplier; why don’t we try and fully automate that capture of data?  A key piece of advice therefore is to Identify the challenges you want to solve first, then think about the tech that might help.

How does the scanning robot work?

Boston Dynamics Robot Dog - Shetland

As you can see from the above picture, the scanner is mounted on the Boston Dynamics Spot robot, and – once programmed – it performs the manual scanning tasks automatically without assistance. So, you set it off in the construction environment and it creates a full scan of the site itself.

Not only are you freeing up a highly-trained and experienced human to do more useful tasks, but also because it's a robot, it only does what it's told. So if you tell it to take measurements from point X, it will go to point X and take measurements, it won't wander over there or get distracted or get called away – it focuses on the task that it's been programmed to do, and is a consistent way of capturing data.

‘Game-changing’ remote control

The remote aspect is particularly exciting – this is done currently using an Xiaomi smartphone connected wirelessly to the private 5G network in Shetland, and by cable into the robot. In addition, we've mounted an HD webcam, as the cameras on the robot are fairly low definition and in black and white, for the robot to navigate itself.

The webcam enables a remote user to see from wherever the robot is positioned, and use control functionality if needed. You don't even have to be physically on the same site. In a demonstration a couple of weeks ago, Trimble logged into the robot through a laptop in Finland (their HQ) , and moved it to a location to initiate a scan. 

The change that the 5G network has enabled is truly remote working, so we can now perform a site survey, or do a visual inspection through Spot being our eyes on the ground.  It should save us time and resources.

Organically extending scope – what next?

As my colleague Ross notes in his blog here, the really exciting phase is happening now, when we show what the 5G technology can enable on-site.

The robot is just a platform that you can attach different pieces of equipment to, so we’re asking: what other kit could we add on…? The robot is Ingress Protection rated, so it’s about making sure whatever payload you use is the right thing; another key learning for others considering deployments.

It’s sparking so many conversations: could we use a thermal imaging camera to see if a piece of equipment is overheating, a security camera for patrolling a site at night time, or a gas detector for work in confined spaces to make sure it is safe for colleagues?

There’s been some really smart non-linear thinking, from the people on the ground like Ross – who was integral to the remote-control aspect too. As he is relatively young to the industry, he hasn't got the cynicism that people tend to get with experience, and comes with fresh eyes. I’d strongly recommend having someone similar in your team.

The novelty factor 

I spoke with an experienced tech journalist the other day, and she kept saying the ‘dog’ was cute’, so it’s not just construction colleagues that can be distracted by a shiny new thing!

It's an industrial robot – a serious piece of technology. Even at conferences, I see a Spot dancing around, and everyone with their phones out.

There is an element where new tech, especially visual autonomous robots, can ironically have the opposite intended effect, with everyone stopping what they're doing and watching it – not improving productivity.

Every sector goes through that, so the advice really is just don't hide it away. Use the tech day in, day out, give people a chance to get familiar with it and the novelty soon wears off.

Showing the benefits

We help our teams take this robot, and other tech we utilise, seriously by briefing them in advance, introducing them to the tech early and clearly communicating (showing not telling) how it will increase productivity, and how it makes that person’s life easier.

It’s understandable in a sector such as ours, that if you bring all this innovation in, people may be reticent about changes and it’s important to consider how you can fully engage your workforce.

Whether you have an autonomous robot, or a new network, how do you bring that to life for people I guess would be the question?

If you've got a piece of kit plugged into the wall relaying loads of great data, for instance, it’s not a bright yellow robot stomping around the site, so you may need to work a little harder to get people bought in!

Show them how the extra speed and data can make their jobs easier, safer or more efficient. Make it practical and tangible for people on the ground to understand why this new technology is coming in and how it is there to support them.

Navigating a real-life construction environment

Spot hadn't been used extensively in a construction setting before, which opened up a few challenges. Construction sites have walkways lined with gates, and it didn’t know how to go through. It sort of stood there for a bit, looking (although it is a robot) confused.

It sees it as a physical obstacle, and had no experience in manoeuvring a spring-loaded gate.  Be prepared therefore that if you are pushing the boundaries, there will be a testing and bedding-in period, for the tech as well as your employees.

Similarly, be aware of other aspects that may affect any semi-autonomous robot on site. Are there deliveries coming, is this part of the site going to change in the coming days with materials, or are there quieter times of the day when it would be best to get the scanning done?

Building the right partner relationships

For this project, the development team from Trimble are based in Finland and the US, and Boston Dynamics are from the States, so it is a significant global collaboration.

Zoom was where the project was born, but it definitely helped meeting in person, on-site in Shetland. It might have also been helped by us all squeezing onto a small aircraft, and then the team putting their lives in my hands as I drove the minibus across the island!

Following this on-site meeting, extremely strong bonds were formed. Ross, the engineer on site in Shetland, is in direct contact with Kim from Trimble in Finland, calling for ad-hoc advice or problem solving – it'd be really hard to do that without those initial in-person meetings.

Internally, what's really special about the Shetland project is how onboard the operational team have been with everything; they've seen how it could work, and they've been involved. It's not been pushed on them. We also know Adrian, the project director, is supportive of trying new things – he's got a longer term view.

In our experience, you need to have that advocate for that initial, open exploration. Find the people who you can speak openly with, get decent engagement from and who are open to sparing the time to try things.

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