In recent years, robotics, artificial intelligence and virtual reality have found a ready market in construction. And although still widely regarded as being at the cutting edge of construction technology, many futuristic innovations are now routinely employed and are constantly finding new applications.
Among the more successful technologies is Spot, the robotic dog-like machine developed by US firm Boston Dynamics. Although scarily reminiscent of the robot dogs hunting down Maxine Peake in the Metalhead episode of the dystopian drama series Black Mirror, Spot is actually a benign and very useful tool for working in environments that might be hazardous to humans.
This summer, contractor Bam has been using Spot to survey derelict military installations at a National Trust nature reserve on the Suffolk coast.
The historic former Cold War weapons testing facilities at the Orford Ness Nature Reserve date from the 1950s and ’60s (plus a couple of buildings from the 1930s). Here, tests were carried out on atomic bomb components during the Cold War and, although no nuclear contamination is present, the buildings have been off-limits to National Trust visitors and staff for several years.
Now Bam, on behalf of the National Trust, is using advanced surveying technology at the sensitive historic site using drones, as well as one of Boston Dynamics’ Spot robots equipped with a Trimble X7 scanner.
The work is the first stage of a longer-term National Trust project, involving partnerships with Historic England, Bam and University College London’s Bartlett School for Sustainable Construction.
Among the derelict buildings are two laboratories, officially called Lab 4 and Lab 5 but commonly known as the ‘pagodas’ on account of their distinctive profile. Constructed in 1960, the buildings, both of which are classified as scheduled monuments, are two of the original six Cold War laboratories used as experimental facilities to carry out environmental tests on the atomic bomb components.
The tests were designed to mimic the rigours to which a weapon might be subjected before detonation, including vibration, extremes of temperature, shocks and G-forces.
The Spot robot, which has a camera as well as the Trimble scanner mounted to the top, travels on four jointed articulating legs that allow it to travel over uneven terrain that would be defeat anything mounted on wheels or even tracks. Using the camera, the operator guides the robot across the site remotely and from a safe distance.
According to Bam survey technician Aimee Cooper, who operated the robot, Spot can go up and down stairs and over most terrains although it does struggle on shingle.
Colin Evison, innovation technical lead at Bam, explains: “This survey mission was a trial undertaken by the National Trust to understand how the different technologies deployed by Bam, Historic England and UCL could be used in an environment like this. It is hoped it will lead to a widespread survey of all of the buildings at Orford Ness but nothing is confirmed at this stage.
“At Bam we are constantly seeking to evolve the ways in which we capture and process survey information, so the unique nature of Orford Ness is a fantastic opportunity to put into action our agile mobile robot, Spot,” adds Evison.
“The robot is an ideal method to deploy surveying equipment in and around the decaying structures sited in an environmentally sensitive location and the mission will provide us with valuable experience and feedback on using the survey technology, as well as the opportunity to exchange knowledge with the National Trust and other participants.
“The buildings are in various states of decay so many are deemed to be hazardous for entry by people,” Evison explains. “As far as I am aware there was never any testing of nuclear material at the site.”
Bam acquired Spot in early 2022 and has since used it on several different site surveying missions as well as technical demonstrations and school engagement events. The Orford Ness site offered the ideal opportunity to test the combination of robotic dog and Trimble scanner in a location inaccessible to humans.
Although the old military buildings are out of bounds to people, the hazards involved are relatively mild and not much different to those encountered in any derelict industrial buildings. After years of neglect, their structural integrity is compromised to the extent that there is a risk of collapse. But there is no evidence of nuclear contamination nor any unexploded munitions present.
Hence, Bam can put Spot through its paces and assess its capabilities without the fear that it will be blown up or become irradiated and too hot to handle when it returns to base.
Glen Pearce, operations manager at Orford Ness, says that the exercise is a rare opportunity to see inside the ‘pagodas’.
“The buildings have always had a certain mystery about them,” he says. “When they were built and in use during the Cold War, they were shrouded in secrecy, and after they were decommissioned, they fell into disrepair. Nobody has been able to go inside for several years due to safety concerns.
“This is the first time the National Trust has employed this kind of technology and it’s a key part of our commitment to ongoing research at our places.
“If successful, it could change the way we – and our visitors – engage with the structures at Orford Ness as well as other scheduled monuments and buildings deemed unsafe to enter.”
National Trust archaeologist Angus Wainwright adds: “Historic England’s research into the buildings made us realise how significant they are, on a national and international scale… These are some of the few Cold War buildings that are on this monumental scale and visitable by the public.
“The buildings used to be quite safe so we could go in and out as much as we liked, but now they are getting riskier as the concrete decays. That’s why we are doing this survey in this remote way, without anyone going into the buildings.”
The National Trust acquired the site from the Ministry of Defence in 1993 but no measured surveys have been completed of the buildings before. As scheduled monuments, the buildings have the same protected status as the Anglo-Saxon burial site at Sutton Hoo, another National Trust-owned site nearby.
In the past few years, the pagodas have also become part of the National Trust’s ‘curated decay’ policy and have been left to nature, including the effects of Orford Ness’ exposed coastal location. The roofs have become nesting sites for lesser black-backed gulls, which are on the UK’s amber conservation list.