Trimble and Piaggio Fast Forward (PFF) trial autonomous robots to follow humans and other machines on construction sites.
Robots in construction seems like a science fiction fantasy three years ago. Now we have real robots, real applications and we are already emerging through the hype cycle. Trimble and Piaggio have a new trial for construction robots that will follow workers around, or follow another robot, such as Boston Dynamics’ Spot around a worksite. Yes, Spot is also now the leader of a pack!
Piaggio, famous for making the Vespa scooter amongst other things, has been working on this technology since 2017 and our sister publication DEVELOP3D had the inside track on this ‘following’ robot prototype back in 2017. We never thought we would see this technology in robots in construction too.
This could lead to a whole range of new construction robots with bigger load capacities working with pack leaders like Spot on projects. Read our analysis
The companies have integrated Piaggio’s ‘PFFtag’ smart following technology onto a Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot platform while being controlled by Trimble’s advanced positioning technology. This removes any necessity to control the robot via joystick. Our robot overlords can now operate independently in packs together.
“Most robotics companies look at the world as a world of obstacles,” said Greg Lynn, PFF’s chief executive oﬃcer. “At PFF, we adopted the opposite approach and this philosophy has fuelled our research of how humans and robots physically move through space.
“We design behaviours that understand people and help automate tasks so you don’t have to build complicated hardware. Working with Trimble to boost the process of replacing remote-controlled robots traveling on predetermined paths in mapped environments enable yet another step in the ultimate goal of providing safe and intuitive operations of machines in industrial environments. Dynamic following technology is one step closer to kicking the doors open to further implementation—from power tools to farming equipment to even automated vehicles.”
While many robots in construction, including Spot, are currently controlled by joysticks operated in person or by telepresence from a remote location, operators can now leverage PFF’s exclusive smart following technology, that allows humans to lead other robots and machines, providing a larger range of navigation methods—remote control, autonomous, and now, following—in dynamic environments. PFF engineers have been able to componentise the smart following technology developed for PFF’s gita robot into a stand-alone module called PFFtag, which can be integrated to ‘play friendly’ with other robots in construction.
PFFtag enables external partners to leverage its exclusive algorithms and allow their software to communicate with PFF’s software. This enables a human to control the robot via pairing and improves the robot’s ability to sense direction and velocity as it follows the leader. A simple push of a button activates a fused sensor array that pairs to a leader who navigates Spot or other robots in construction or civil engineering spaces—there is no special training to operate or joystick, no app or tablet. Ultimately, this can create a wider range of applications for existing machines and positively impact productivity of robots in construction, increasing safety and quality of work
“Through its collaboration with Trimble, Piaggio Fast Forward once again demonstrates its pioneering vocation and ceaseless research into new forms of interaction between human beings and robots, where people and their mobility needs are the foundation for our mission,” said Michele Colaninno, founder and chairman of Piaggio Fast Forward. “Robots are a growing presence in our lives, both private and professional, helping to make human activities less burdensome and more efficient. When technology and robotics are put at people’s service, I believe they can play a significant role in transforming individual mobility and re-defining workplaces and urban environments to make them more sustainable and people-friendly, and so help create a better future.”
As part of the proof-of-concept, Trimble conducted testing using a Spot robot equipped with Trimble laser scanning or Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) sensors and PFFtag technology at one of its customer’s sites in Colorado over the course of two months.
“The follow-me technology by PFF provides an intuitive user experience and opens the door to collaborative robots that can augment the human workforce,” said Aviad Almagor, division vice president, Trimble’s Emerging Technologies. “Like, a 21st century Sancho Panza, robots with PFFtag, may have the future ability to assist construction professionals in their daily workflow, carry heavy equipment, improve efficiency and enhance workers safety.”
Armed with value insight from this proof-of concept, PFF will continue its vision of helping humans and machines collaborate in all environments, leading the charge to support the smart cities and worksites of tomorrow.
AEC Magazine’s take
It’s interesting to see the development of Piaggio Fast Forward’s following technology being applied to robots in construction. When we originally saw it, the concept was all about luggage that followed you around on its own power. From that, the visual-based following technology has fed into this construction-centric development.
Spot is a smarter and more environment aware robot and costs a lot because of all that high-end technology. By using this PFF module, robots in construction can create their own version of ‘follow the leader’ and get tools, material to where Spot needs them to go.
This could lead to a whole range of new construction robots with bigger load capacities working with pack leaders like Spot on projects. This is a great collaboration, Trimble has really aggressively approached the market, as we have covered before and seems to be thinking outside the box here.
Who’s up for a swarm of robots at our next NXT BLD?
Want to read more about robots in construction from AEC Magazine? Read this