Spot the Dog: The robotic dog busy delivering data on dangerous construction sites for Balfour Beatty

Interesting Engineering sighted 'Spot the Dog' with construction group Balfour Beatty. Naturally, we had a chat with one of their technicians.
Sade Agard
Spot the dog at the Brooklands Academy event
Spot the dog at the Brooklands Academy event

Sade Agard 

'Spot the dog,' Balfour Beatty's first robotic employee, was sighted by Interesting Engineering (IE) at the 'Brooklands Science Summer School event' yesterday (Nov. 29).

IE spoke with Jay Saddington, one of the company's personnel, to learn more about Spot's activities and what it's like to take care of it.

Spot delivers CAT designs for derelict buildings and nuclear power plants

"I work in a survey department. Here we keep records or take measurements of sites including dangerous derelict buildings, nuclear power plants, or similar," explained Jaye Saddington to IE.

"We'll send the dog out first, with our 3D scanner on top to take room measurements."

According to Saddington, the robotic dog essentially captures a number of photos that may be combined to create a comprehensive blueprint or CAT design of the building structure.

The trio: Boston Dynamics, Balfour Beatty, and Trimble

Spot the Dog: The robotic dog busy delivering data on dangerous construction sites for Balfour Beatty
You can put anything on top of Spot the Dog

"At the moment, we're the middleman between Boston Dynamics, the people who make it, and Trimble, those who made the scanner," said Saddington.

He explained that Balfour Beatty is currently in an early development program for the American company, enabling them to work out what they can and can't do with the robotic dog.

Additionally, as well as specializing in advanced 3D scanning systems, Trimble develops a range of other kits compatible with the robotic dog. The scanner, which utilizes Lidar technology, is just one of many devices Beatty is currently testing for their construction requirements.

"You could put whatever you want on top of it. For our case, we've got a scanner, but in the future we might need a GPS," he added.

"I essentially make a visual force field around the dog"

Saddington also revealed to IE that he could set the proximity of the robot- i.e., how close it gets to something before it moves out of the way.

"I essentially make a visual force field around the dog. So if I send it to a chair, it will just walk around it when it gets to, say, 50 centimeters of it," he explained.

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He also pointed out that Spot the dog has two cameras and two sensors on each side which helps LIDAR. "I can also check those cameras live," added Saddington.

A robot dog can be repaired or replaced, whereas a human life cannot

The main reason for opting for a robotic dog as opposed to a human is to do with being safety-critical, Saddington told IE. He explained that to send a human somewhere that's potentially dangerous, there are obvious risks involved.

Presenting a robotic dog instead means paying a relatively small price. "A robot dog can be repaired or replaced, whereas a human life can't," Saddington said.

This makes sense considering, in 2022, over a quarter of the 123 workers killed in work-related accidents in the UK were employed in the construction industry. Furthermore, although only 6 percent of Americans are employed in the construction sector, it is responsible for almost 20 percent of all worker fatalities in the country. 

Therefore, having a robotic dog contributes to much needed efforts for improving workplace security.

"A robotic dog can do that without breaking a sweat"

"Efficiency and time are big things. Getting someone to carry a scanner constantly is a great ask- a robotic dog can do that without breaking a sweat," Saddington said.

He also mentioned Elon Musk acquiring a group of robotic dogs for one of his Tesla factories to do routes like security dogs. "I think he's got about 10 of them. We have two dogs: Spot the dog and Dot the dog."

Spot the Dog can go for a self-charging walk

Spot the Dog: The robotic dog busy delivering data on dangerous construction sites for Balfour Beatty
The silver box is known as the "spot ball"

Located under the scanning dock, lies a silver box called the "spot ball." "This is basically a CPU (central processing unit.) Because it just makes the computing power a bit better," explained Saddington.

The battery pack is underneath the spot ball. It needs charging for 45 minutes (when using scanners) or 45 minutes (without scanners) for a 45-minute run. Depending on the payload, the dog can also power instruments off its battery.

"We do also have a docking station that enables Spot to go for an autonomous walk, for example. It can just go and charge itself while continuing its job," he highlighted

"All we need is a Wi Fi connection, a tablet, and the dog,"

Saddington expressed how operating Spot the Dog is great. At the moment, he attends events regularly and explained that it makes sense to follow these physically to explain how everything works. The same applies at construction sites too.

"It's good for me to be there, but in the future, I'm hoping I can sit at home in my office and then control it remotely from there. Because essentially all we need is a Wi Fi connection, a tablet and the dog," he concluded.