Mac, the unique robot construction dog, is very popular with students

News Summary:

  • Besides Auburn’s beloved mascot Aubie, perhaps nothing is drawing more crowds on campus these days than the university’s most incredible new addition: a robotic dog named Mac.

  • One-of-a-kind robotics tool paves the way for future construction industry instruction.

Designed by Boston Dynamics, the agile four-legged robot – acquired by the McWhorter School of Building Science, or BSCI, in the College of Architecture, Design, and Construction, or CADC – is a magnet for attention on the Plains. Weighing 80 pounds and standing nearly 6 feet tall, Mac, named for Marlon McWhorter, who graduated from Auburn in 1968 and whose name adorns the school, is a popular attraction wherever he goes.

Mac was purchased by BSCI this spring and has already been used on construction sites and in classrooms in Auburn. Wetzel said the robot has been used for research experiments on active construction sites, including the Tony and Libba Rane Culinary Science Center, taking autonomous laser scans of rooms to record completion rates and create 3-D images useful to project managers and teachers.

“He draws a crowd, and people are always curious about Mac and want to take pictures with him,” said Eric Wetzel, assistant professor of architecture.

“We try to use Mac in all three phases of the university mission – research, service, and teaching,” said Wetzel, the 2019 recipient of the Auburn Alumni Alumni Association’s Alumni Undergraduate Teaching Excellence Award. “This is a very new technology, especially on construction sites. Every research question we develop is untested because we’ve never had autonomous robots on construction sites as we have now. We are looking at different applications and payloads and continue to explore several different research questions.”

Mac is an excellent tool on construction sites because its mobility and autonomous mode allow the robot to enter and scan a space independently, avoiding obstacles and providing comprehensive and detailed data that can be studied and applied directly to projects. Mac’s autonomous LiDAR scans can free up personnel such as mechanics for other tasks on a construction site.

“Historically, LiDAR scans have been a very time-consuming activity for a field engineer, so by sending Mac autonomously out to perform those scans, it alleviates the time it takes for the field engineer to perform those scans,” said Wetzel, who earned his Master of Building Construction at Auburn before completing his doctorate at Virginia Tech. “The fact that Mac is a quadruped allows him to go up and down stairs, deal with rough terrain on a construction site and step over things and avoid them. This type of robot is the first that can be actively used on a construction site without getting stuck in mud or blocked by things sitting on the ground.”

LiDAR scans help researchers and construction managers monitor the progress of a project or construction site with high-quality, dynamic imagery. “It’s a newer form of advanced technology that allows you to thoroughly and accurately capture spatial data of a site or structure,” said Junshan Liu, associate professor at the McWhorter School of Building Science and co-author with Wetzel of a comparative analysis report with Mac. “It’s a comprehensive recording, down to two millimeters, and you get a snapshot of a building as it is at that moment. That documentation is essential for historic buildings as well as new construction.

“LiDAR scanning is labor intensive and requires the efforts of a lot of people. So Mac is great because we can send it to a construction site programmed to capture images at night when no one is working. That can improve productivity, and for dangerous conditions, we can send Mac to places where people shouldn’t go because they’re unsafe.” Part of a revolution

Mac is part of a revolution in the construction industry, with more and more robotics being used each year as technology continues to improve. “In the last decade, we’ve seen explosive growth in construction robotics,” said Wetzel, who has worked in the water and wastewater industry for many years. “Mac is representative of this shift, partly because the technology is good enough to be valid on construction sites now. The construction industry faces a huge shortage of skilled workers, for which there seems to be no short-term solution.

“If you can’t find people to lay bricks or tie rebar, and we have the technology for robots, why not let robots do some repetitive and hard work on the human body? Frankly, humans shouldn’t sit hunched over all day tying rebar, so why not let a robot do that work that doesn’t have sore muscles and aching feet and can work 24/7 – as long as it has the strength for it?” Jake Lovelace, an innovation and operations tech specialist at Brasfield & Gorrie LLC, agrees. The Birmingham-based construction company, whose name graces the CADC Gorrie Center, has a Boston Dynamics SPOT dog of its own they call Benji.

“I believe we are at the beginning of a ‘renaissance’ in construction,” Lovelace said. “The industry is seeing rapid growth in technology that is transforming traditional manual workflows into data-driven autonomous processes. While ‘hands in the earth will always be essential, digital innovators will have an important place at the table to manage the ever-growing amount of data needed to build a successful project. “The task is not easy – a typical construction site is a very dynamic environment and hosts many hazardous activities, making robotic automation extremely difficult to achieve. But I think this is why innovators are naturally drawn to this space – they enjoy the challenge.”