One of architecture’s newest and unlikeliest tools can now be found clomping through the dusty concrete floors of a half-built building. Just four legs and a torso, it could transform the way buildings get made.
The tool is the dog-like robot called Spot, which was created by Boston Dynamics and is now being used by the London-based global architecture firm Foster + Partners to scan and analyze buildings that are under construction. More commonly deployed in various industrial capacities, from monitoring dangerous oil and gas sites to inspecting areas with unsafe levels of radiation, Spot has become a part-time architect.
To test out the robot’s usefulness in the context of architecture, Foster + Partners’ Applied Research and Development group set it loose inside Battersea Power Station, a major redevelopment project under construction on the banks of the Thames in London. Spot is programmed to follow a pre-mapped route through the construction site, scanning the progress of the building and comparing it to the original design. This helps identify any mistakes and alterations that pop up as the digital design gets transformed into concrete and steel and ensures details such as plumbing and electrical conduits are correctly aligned. By monitoring the construction process every week, the architects can quickly see if and how the physical building is deviating from the plans, and then adjust them to account for variations.
“Currently the workflows used can be quite linear, and any design or on-site changes can have a knock-on effect in the process,” says Martha Tsigkari, a partner at Foster + Partners, in an email. “Disruptive technologies like Spot allow for any changes to be picked up almost instantly, saving both time and money.”
The firm has also used the robot on a renovation of its own headquarters in London, taking the data collected during its regular scans not only to monitor construction but also to influence the building’s functionality, according to partner Adam Davis. “Our colleagues designing the environmental systems [heating, cooling, and lighting] benefited greatly from having quick, detailed feedback on the as-built conditions before, during, and after the renovation works,” he says.
The robot can be used to monitor completed and occupied buildings, performing regular scans to understand how spaces are being used. But though there could come a time when a robot dog roving through a building is as innocuous as an escalator, for now it’s still a curiosity. “For Spot, or any robot, to be useful after occupancy, our entire perception of how we interact with them must change,” says Tsigkari, noting that humans sometimes try to obstruct or even hinder robots when they’re encountered. “We have witnessed nothing but excitement and admiration for Spot during our case studies, but it would be interesting to see what sort of behaviors emerge when robots like Spot become less of a novelty and more of a daily occurrence in our lives.”
It’s more likely that Spot will be used to scan buildings after people have gone home. “At the moment, Spot turns heads wherever it goes. For use in occupied buildings, that presents a challenge because ideally you want to capture reality without altering it,” says Davis. Instead, he envisions Spot making the rounds after the office is closed and combining its scans with data from sensors to reconfigure internal building layouts and adjust lighting and temperature control.
Down the line, Spot could even come to affect how buildings get designed. Tsigkari says just knowing a regular scan could catch issues later on may allow designers more flexibility in proposing design ideas that are far more experimental. “Disruptive technologies have an interesting way of affecting processes we do not anticipate” she says.
For now, Spot’s potential is still being tested. Davis says the biggest innovation it can bring to architecture is an understanding of buildings in four dimensions: how space changes over time, and also how time changes the way spaces are used. “How do spatial arrangements—of furnishings and partitions, for instance—affect the amount of time that people spend in a space and their experience of that time? Is it buzzing with creative energy and social interaction, or does it promote contemplation and focus?” he says. “We can infer a lot of these qualities of space and inhabitation through data. And Spot’s ability to gather spatial data at regular intervals is a big piece of this puzzle.”