Foster + Partners’ best friend: Spot the (robot) dog

Martha Tsigkari and Adam Davis, partners in Foster + Partners’ Applied Research + Development group, talk to Denise Chevin about their experience with ‘Spot’ the robot dog, last seen scanning the Battersea Roof Gardens mixed-use project ( 

Why did you decide to trial Boston Dynamics’ robotic inspection dog Spot on your Battersea project?

Martha Tsigkari (MT): We’re always on the lookout for innovative technologies that could have a big impact in our industry – trying to test them out and incorporate them in our processes as early as possible. Boston Dynamics’ Spot is a disruptive technology that could not only revolutionise the way we monitor the progress on our building sites, but also the way we capture the ever-changing configuration of dynamic spaces.

We wanted to trial Spot on a live site and see how this process would work. The idea was to be able to take scans of the space on a regular basis and compare the as-designed digital model against the as-built reality.

Adam Davis (AD): We wanted to see what kind of information we could capture and how this could be used further down the line – not only in terms of deltas between the two models, but also in terms of monitoring progress, procurement and so on. The Battersea Roof Gardens development provided an excellent test bed for our research, due to logistical reasons, the state of building works, and perhaps most importantly the fantastic support we had on-site from the Phase 3 BPS team and McAlpine, who are the contractors on site.

What were your expectations – and did it meet them?

MT: First of all, we have to say that Spot exceeded expectations, not only because we’re talking about a fantastic piece of technology, but also because of the extraordinary team behind the robot. Boston Dynamics’ on-going and proactive support has been instrumental in the success of our case study – we were delighted to work with such a fantastic group of people.

We were hoping to be able to retrieve consistent scans of one of the floors on a regular basis, and easily compare them against our BIM models. We wanted to do that over a stretch of two months, but only succeeded in completing a four-week schedule, before covid-19 restrictions made things challenging.

AD: We have also undertaken a case study on our own campus, shadowing renovation works on-going in one of our design studios. This exercise proved particularly fruitful as well, as we could see the significance of being able to take consistent scans of a space on regular intervals, which could then inform an on-going design process. This effort was also greatly facilitated by our collaboration with Avvir, a start-up in New York whose machine-learning driven software allowed us to do direct comparisons of our as-designed BIM models against the scanned point clouds.

On-site inspections were not our sole interest in using Spot. We saw great potential in the possibility of robotic scanning that could be related to our research into digital twins and 4D space capture.

What do you see as the main benefit of using the technology for architects and contractors?

MT: What differentiates Spot in the business of capturing a space is its ability to do it repeatedly and independently in a consistent manner. Unlike manual scanning, Spot needs to be programmed once on how to complete a mission (assigned route and positions for scans) and it is then capable of repeating this process again and again, without further input from the user. Spot is even capable of bypassing obstacles or avoiding people that stand on its assigned route, in order to complete its mission. In case of repeated scans, we certainly find this to be a time and money saver.

AD: One of the opportunities of simplified, regular scanning for architects is to provide volumes of data about how our buildings are constructed and occupied that we would otherwise be missing. This works both spatially and temporally – we are able to get better spatial resolution and more scans over time than we would normally if we were to engage scanning through typical tripod-mounted scans. This increased resolution allows us to get far more specific in the kinds of questions we can ask of the data.

When designing, we will often encounter issues of uncertainty and make reasonable decisions based on experience and intuition. These decisions might concern how we anticipate a contractor may assemble a part of our design, or indeed, how building occupants may inhabit spaces over the life of a building. Getting regular, detailed feedback about these conditions provides us with more information, resulting in better-informed design decisions.

What happens next – will you continue to deploy Spot?

AD: We do have additional research and testing planned with Spot. The covid-related restrictions in effect in England require that we postpone these plans for the moment, but we look forward to resuming this as soon as we can.

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