A Robotic Dog Assists in Cold War Site Survey

For the first time, the National Trust employs a robotic dog named Spot in Suffolk to inspect decaying buildings that are hazardous for humans. This marks a fresh approach in the Trust’s ongoing research efforts.

Cold War Echoes: What Are The Pagodas?

Orford Ness, a remote shingle spit, served as a military testing ground during the two world wars and the nuclear era. It’s home to Labs 4 and 5, also known as the pagodas.

Constructed in 1960, these labs simulated various conditions for atomic bomb tests. Although free from nuclear materials, a test malfunction could still cause a disastrous blast.

“This is a really exciting opportunity for us to see inside Labs 4 and 5 – the ‘pagodas’,” said Glen Pearce, operations manager at Orford Ness. “Nobody has been able to go inside for several years due to safety concerns.”

Spot to The Rescue

Spot, manufactured by Boston Dynamics and equipped with a Trimble X7 scanner, can go where humans can’t. “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,” said Pearce.

The robot dog has four hinged legs and a camera on top. It allows BAM, a UK construction and civil engineering company, to control it remotely. Working alongside drones, Spot brings a new dimension to surveying dangerous sites.


The Value of Surveying

Angus Wainwright, a National Trust archaeologist, stressed the importance of the pagodas on both a national and international level.

“That’s why we are doing this survey in this remote way, without anyone going into the buildings,” Wainwright explained.

The surveying mission aims to create a detailed record for posterity. “The mission will provide us with valuable experience and feedback on using the survey technology,” said Colin Evison, innovation technical lead at BAM.

Environmental Considerations

The roofs of these decaying structures are now homes for lesser black-backed gulls, which are on the UK’s amber conservation list. The project thus needs to account for environmental sensitivity.

What This Means for Historic Research

Employing robotic technology could change how the National Trust and visitors interact with hazardous monuments. If successful, this method could extend to other sites as well.

“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,” confirmed Pearce.

A Legacy for the Future

The National Trust acquired the Orford Ness site from the UK Ministry of Defence in 1993. As scheduled monuments, these buildings have the same designation as renowned sites like Stonehenge.

The effort is part of a larger National Trust project, involving Historic England, BAM, and University College London’s Bartlett School for Sustainable Construction. The first-ever Robotics & Automation Awards on 31 October 2023 in London will recognize innovations like these in extreme environments.

Overall, Spot’s successful deployment at Orford Ness sets a precedent for similar endeavors, allowing for a safer and more effective approach to conserving Britain’s historical landmarks.