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Why Construction Robots Should Be More Like Sprinklers

When I was kid, I spent my summers with my grandfather, Fred Hauser, a Swiss immigrant engineer living in Los Angeles. Back in the 1930s, he had worked in Hollywood, helping create the audio tape technology for the “talkies”. But by the time I knew him he was an inventor, tinkering in his garage workshop.

His most successful invention was a big one: the automatic sprinkler, which is basically a sprinkler with a clockwork timer attached to it (yes, that’s exactly what you might expect a Swiss engineer in Los Angeles, where the new bungalow owners “greened the desert” with their lawns, to invent: a sprinkler + clock).

Original patents for the automatic sprinkler by my grandfather, Fred Hauser

I learned a lot from him — how to do mechanical drawing, how to use a metal lathe, how to turn ideas into prototypes — but most importantly I learned that a great automatic tool was just that: automatic. Once installed, the sprinklers could be forgotten: they just did their job at the appointed time, and your lawn stayed green.

You may not think of an automatic sprinkler as a robot, but it is: it combines sensing, intelligence and actuation (as does a dishwasher or washing machine, which are also unheralded robots). Today’s sprinklers are connected to the internet, collect data, decide when to water based on weather, and, best of all, just work.

Fast forward more decades than I care to admit, and now, probably not coincidentally, I run a robotics company. 3DR, which I co-founded in 2012, helped pioneer the modern drone industry and, equally importantly, is today putting drones to work gathering data and making it useful. Our inspiration is the same as my grandfather’s: make advanced technology simple to do a needed job well. Great tools should just work—at the end of the day, there’s no reason for an automatic scanning drone to be harder to use than an automatic sprinkler.

Great tools should just work—at the end of the day, there’s no reason for an automatic scanning drone to be harder to use than an automatic sprinkler.

We’re just one part of the biggest movement to come to the AEC industry since CAD. The opportunity to digitize the physical world — scanning sites to create a “digital twin” —  allows us to finally follow that maxim that “you can only manage what you can measure”. This includes everything from drones to indoor scanners such as Matterport, total station laser measurement, RTK GPS, and AI cameras. And this, in turn, is part of an even bigger trend of all industries to digitize what they do, from manufacturing to transportation.

We stand on the shoulders of giants: smartphones and wireless data networks, AI, the cloud, extraordinary sensors from cameras to GPS, even the Internet itself. A decade ago, what we do would be impossible or impossibly expensive. Today, there’s an app for that.

But it’s all still harder than sprinklers. Between regulatory requirements for trained FAA-certified operators to the usual compatibility issues between software platforms, drones are still making their way onto construction sites. The same could be said for total stations a quarter-century ago, however, and now they’re ubiquitous. Drones may take five years, even ten years to get there. But the adoption curve is getting faster, thanks to the all the complimentary technologies, such as mobile and BIM, that are pushing into the AEC industry at the same time.

Capturing aerial data on-site with PCL Construction

Someday soon, the first worker on a construction site will go through their morning routine of opening the gate, unlocking the trailer, starting the generator and, yes, pressing the red button on the drone box. That box will be dusty, dented, unloved — just like any other piece of standard construction equipment, as unremarkable as it is essential. Nobody will notice as it flies overhead throughout the day, just as they don’t notice the crane overhead. At the end of the day, another worker will ensure that its batteries are recharging and close the box for the night.

The opportunity to digitize the physical world — scanning sites to create a digital twin —  allows us to finally follow that maxim that “you can only manage what you can measure”.

What they will notice, however, is that the BIM model of the job really is a “digital twin”. Always accurately showing the latest work, always evolving, increasingly relied-upon. The networks of the Internet are now something we take as much for granted as we do the networks of the electric power grid, but the data that flows over them continues to marvel. The same is coming to the construction industry: sensors that fade into the background, but data that shines brighter and brighter.

Now imagine drones doing the same in farms or corporate campuses or around oil refineries. Boxes with copters inside and solar cells outside to recharge their batteries. Like the irrigation systems, at some point in the day they wake up, emerge from the boxes, and do their thing: site surveying, crop mapping, security patrols, whatever. When they’re done, they return automatically to their boxes, the lids close, and they sleep until they do it all again the next day. They’re like flying security cameras or satellites: you don’t care how they work, as long as you get the data.

We’ve come a long way from thinking of drones as weapons, sci-fi movies or even headlines. But in the prosaic applications of advanced technologies lie their real impact. Once drones are as ubiquitous and essential as sprinklers, we all will have won.