High Tech’s Higher Purpose November 9, 2023

How a little robot helped rebuild a camp for the blind

By accurately printing architectural plans on construction sites, Dusty Robotics accelerates project timelines, delivering vital services when they’re needed.

Hoby Wedler was born completely blind. At age eight, he started going to Enchanted Hills Camp, a summer retreat operated by Lighthouse, a San Francisco-based nonprofit for the blind and visually impaired. Nestled in the forests west of Napa, California, the camp has been in operation since 1950 and is the oldest of its kind on the West Coast. Each year, it provides classes and experiences to about 450 campers who are blind, blind-deaf, or with low-vision or multiple disabilities—everything from hiking and horseback riding to chemistry classes and woodworking lessons. Blindness is more prevalent in poverty-stricken communities due to unequal access to healthcare, so Enchanted Hills invites all regardless of their ability to pay, with most of its campers coming from low- to moderate-income families. “It’s a safe space that also allowed us to feel a little uncomfortable,” says Wedler, who is now an instructor at the camp. “And that’s so important—to learn while not necessarily knowing how things are going to feel or happen.”  

In 2017, a wildfire tore through the 311-acre camp, burning 20 of Enchanted Hills’ buildings to the ground. While devastated by this catastrophe, Lighthouse sought out the silver lining, determining to use the fire as impetus to update the 70-year-old facility. In January 2021, the county granted the nonprofit permission to rebuild, with the caveat that all permit applications were submitted by December of 2022. The race was on. Launching a capital campaign, Lighthouse knew that whatever it built on the site would have to be completed on a quick timeline and within the bounds of a tight budget. Little did they know that a shoebox-sized robot would roll in to lend a hand.  

Hoby Wedler has been a part of Enchanted Hills Camp since he was eight years old. Today, he teaches chemistry to its blind, deaf-bind, and other low-vision campers. (Photo courtesy of Hoby Wedler)

Lighthouse developed its new-and-improved camp with a design team led by architects Peter Pfau and Helen Schneider of San Francisco. It includes a tech and STEM learning center, a training kitchen, a new pool house, and a network of paths designed to be detectable by the canes that blind people use to navigate their surroundings. The design has a net-zero energy footprint, with onsite generation from solar panels. In the meantime, Pfau and Schneider’s colleague, Mark Walsh, learned about Dusty Robotics, a Bay Area startup founded in 2018 with the goal of increasing construction efficiency. With the Lighthouse project poised to start construction, Walsh recognized the company’s potential to help ensure that Enchanted Hills could be reconstructed on-time and according to budget.  

Dusty produces a small, angular, googly eyed, Roomba-like robot called a FieldPrinter that prints architectural plans directly on the floors of construction sites. The software required is minimal and the system is extremely easy to use. Starting with a control point file that indicates where in 2D space the robot is operating, construction teams upload architectural model information in DWG or CVS format—and that’s it. The robot gets to work. It can print any combination of points and lines directly from CAD files, and linework styles can be customized to indicate layer information, such as wall or plumbing types. It can also print text that spells out the designers’ intentions with crystal clarity, and QR codes that can provide lists of everything that needs to be fixed on construction workers’ devices prior to building inspections. 

Enchanted Hills' new pool house retains the rustic spirit of the original with wood cladding salvaged from the aftermath of the fire. It has two entrances that allow campers to walk through in a straight line, making it easier to navigate. (Photo: Rob Brodman Photography)

It is estimated that change orders typically account for as much as 10-15% of a project’s total budget, while also incurring up to a 20% loss in productivity. Operating with nearly 100% accuracy, the FieldPrinter ensures that projects get built as drawn, while significantly decreasing the number of conflicts that arise when architectural plans butt up against the realities of construction sites. It also helps designers streamline how they deliver information accurately and quickly to the field itself. “The ultimate goal is to give architects more of a voice in how the building actually gets built,” says Dusty Robotics’ CEO, Tessa Lau. “It makes them more like a conductor of an orchestra, ensuring that everything is correct up until the end of construction.”   

Dusty Robotics' FieldPrinter prints architectural plans directly on construction site floors, from the points and lines of CAD files to text and even QR codes. (Video courtesy of Dusty Robotics)

Dusty’s FieldPrinter was brought in for one of the camp’s main indoor gathering spaces, the Forest Commons building, which includes a commercial kitchen, teaching kitchen, and dining facility. The new structure was built with non-combustible roofing and siding that goes above and beyond California code requirements for building in wildfire regions, making them more resilient in the face of future wildfires. Fabric-wrapped acoustic panels were added to keep noise levels under control—an important factor for those who lean on their sense of hearing for spatial awareness.

“With Dusty’s robot, construction workers were able to install equipment with confidence and know where each piece of equipment should live by reading the printed floorplans on the floor. This is much like we as blind people organize our lives so we know exactly where things are,” Wedler says. “We envisioned a place where Enchanted Hills can last for decades to come, and this is it. It doesn’t leave anyone out.”