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Robotic hard hat: automation does the tedious survey work at construction sites

Boston startup builds mobile scanners to help builders get it right

This image from a laser scan made by the Oliver robot from Boston startup RCML shows measurements and other critical construction information at a building side.
This image from a laser scan made by the Oliver robot from Boston startup RCML shows measurements and other critical construction information at a building side.Windover Construction

It will probably be some time before buildings are erected by robots. But a Boston startup called RCML has built a robot that’s designed to make sure that the humans who are still building them get it right.

The robot is named called Oliver, a four-wheeled mobile robot prototype that uses a 3-D laser scanner to take superaccurate maps of the structure as it is going up. These maps will ensure every door, air vent, and light fixture is exactly where the architect wanted it. Such scanners have become routine on big construction jobs, but they’re set up by technicians who then stand around waiting for the scanning to to finish. Those folks have better things to do. Oliver doesn’t.

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Oliver can also handle another dull task: spray-painting lines on the ground as it rolls along, to indicate the exact placement of walls, water pipes or wiring. With its autonomous guidance system, the robot can independently scan or tag a construction site without human assistance, perhaps at night when it’ll have the place to itself.

RCML designed Oliver in partnership with Beverly-based Windover Construction. Both companies were assisted by Autodesk, which makes 3-D design software for the construction industry and runs a technology center in the Seaport District where architects and construction companies can learn and develop new building techniques.

At Autodesk, RCML chief executive Lana Graf encountered engineers from Windover working on new construction techniques. From them she learned of the need for a cheaper, more efficient way to run 3-D scans.

"They would not have found each other if they hadn’t both been here,” said Rick Rundell, who runs Autodesk’s technology centers.

These days, architects build virtual structures inside a computer long before construction workers break ground. Autodesk makes software that can simulate every detail of a building, down to the placement of light switches and sprinkler nozzles.

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But construction workers are only human; how to make sure that sprinkler nozzle is the right location, that corner angle is set to just the right degree? Since the 1990s, contractors have been using laser scanners to generate 3-D images of the building as they erect it. These images of the real building can be overlaid on the architect’s virtual building to identify discrepancies before they throw the whole thing out of whack.

“It’s measureable and accurate up to one millimeter,” said Scott Diaz, director of business development for the construction industry at FARO Technologies, a Florida company that makes the 3-D laser scanner used by Oliver. "You’re now able to bring the real world onto your desktop.”

Such scans must be done regularly, floor by floor, to catch errors before they get out of hand. That’s where Oliver comes in. It’s named for MIT graduate Oliver Smoot, who in a famous stunt in 1958 laid his body end-over-end across the Massachusetts Avenue bridge to measure the length of the river crossing in "Smoots.”

Oliver features a laser scanner mounted about 5 feet high that can rotate 360 degrees. At the front and rear of the robot, LIDAR detectors use a separate laser system to detect landmarks and avoid obstacles, so Oliver can find its own way through the area. The robot stops and scans multiple locations, storing the captured data in the same kind of SD memory card used in digital cameras.

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Amr Raafat, a vice president at Windover Construction, demonstrates the Oliver robot by Boston startup RCML that takes  highly detailed scans of building sites.
Amr Raafat, a vice president at Windover Construction, demonstrates the Oliver robot by Boston startup RCML that takes highly detailed scans of building sites.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Its scanner beams millions of laser dots and the reflected light builds out a 3-D map. It can also repeat the process using a digital camera that records the color of every object for additional realism. When loaded into a computer, the result is an almost photo-like image of the mapped area, that can be compared with the digital blueprints.

Once programmed, Oliver can navigate the construction site on its own, running its scans at night when workers are off duty and having them ready for architects the next morning. With its large rubber tires, Oliver can climb stairs or a ramp, so it can scan multiple floors.

In addition, Oliver’s chassis contains room for a can of paint, and a spray nozzle. Guided by its map of the area, the robot can show workers where to install walls, doorways, cables, and ducts. The prototype holds just one can of paint, but future versions could carry multiple colors - perhaps white for walls, black for doorways, red for electric wires, and blue for water pipes.

Spawned by graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, RCML makes software that lets robots from different manufacturers work with each other. For instance, its software helps manage robots on the assembly lines of carmaker Tesla. But RCML also creates robotic hardware, such as a machine for stacking donut baskets that they designed for fast food chain Dunkin’ Donuts.

Graf has come to believe that there’s huge potential in putting robots to work in the building trades. “I was literally seeing so many inefficiencies in the construction industry,” she said. "We would like to reduce waste out of construction, and we would like to make it eco-friendly.”

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Windover vice president Amr Raafat does not expect that Oliver will eliminate jobs. Instead the robot will free up highly-paid technical staff, who have plenty of other work to do.

For now, Oliver is just a prototype that’s been tested at three Windover construction sites. But Graf hopes to make such robots a common sight on building projects worldwide. Others have had the same idea. One of the Boston area’s best known robot makers. Boston Dynamics, which has generated worldwide attention with its four-legged Spot robots, is working with FARO to develop a walking laser scanner that could scamper around a construction site like a Labrador retriever.



Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.