With technology advancing faster than ever before, it’s no wonder the construction industry is starting to see rapid changes every year. With this exponential rate of change, the time between a technology being born and its practical application will continue to become shorter and shorter.
This is drawing the attention of construction professionals across the country to how these new technologies will affect their businesses. Compiled here are the top trends in construction technology that will be important to watch.
Drones have quickly risen to become a hot topic within the industry. Once reserved for the military, drones have recently become a common discussion topic at industry conventions. While many initial saw drones as gimmicky gadgets, they are quickly finding real uses on site.
One example is site documentation, allowing on-site activity and progress to be recorded in a faster and more reliable way than ever before seen. Several construction companies have begun pilots with drones on-site and are using them as a quick and inexpensive way to do site analysis. Traditional aerial site inspections are time-consuming, expensive and the results are difficult to analyze. However, an inexpensive drone fit with a camera can capture these aerial photos at a fraction of the cost and complexity.
Further, drones are bringing a whole new method to inspections of hard-to-reach areas without requiring site teams to inspect in what could be dangerous conditions. For example, a team could remotely operate a drone in order to inspect the face of a concrete dam. The drone could quickly scan for spalled concrete, cracks and other signs of deterioration much faster and more accurately than otherwise possible. In addition, the project team could map this image data continually over time to show changes in conditions.
Currently, researchers are working on developing new systems to allow further integration of drones into existing technology. Some are working to develop systems that tie into existing 3-D project models and to identify problem areas. This would be done by mapping a series of time-sensitive aerial photos to the original model and identifying discrepancies.
Augmented reality, for many years, has been a widely-discussed topic in the technology world, where its application in areas such as gaming has attracted significant interest. Outside of gaming, augmented reality is proving its significance in a multitude of industries and applications, one of which is construction. Augmented reality (AR) is a term used to describe the application of computer generated data that is applied over your real-world environment. In other words, the technology is augmenting the user’s vision using computer-generated imagery such as graphics, GPS data or video. Today, the most common form of AR is delivered via wearable see-through digital glasses, such as Microsoft’s HoloLens.
In construction, two-dimensional communication through applications such as drawings and spreadsheets has been the method of communicating information for decades. Every construction professional is trained to properly interpret this two-dimensional information (for example, floor plans and elevation views) and translate it into the finished 3D product.
This communication method forces the reader to reach into their imagination and translate the 2D information into actionable information for building in the real (3D) world. With the introduction of building information modeling (BIM), this translation from 2D to 3D was thought to no longer be necessary. However, the complex nature of the technology creates a steep learning curve and among other barriers the BIM software is difficult to integrate past consultants and experts – creating a disconnect within the site team.
The ability to integrate BIM and AR technologies for use on-site could prove to be an excellent way of releasing BIM from the experts’ clutches and out to the rest of the jobsite – decreasing the need to communicate 3D intentions with 2D tools. The concept for this AR application is to use the GPS already in a device to sync location data to a BIM model. In other words, the device being used (such as an iPad) would pull the exact location information using GPS coordinates and would overlay the corresponding site information from the BIM model on top of the real-world view. This would give the user the ability to see the 3D virtual view of the construction overlaid on the real-world view of the jobsite with the click of a button.
With the development of augmented reality comes the new challenge of how to make this type of technology more accessible in the construction industry, where much of the work takes place on the field and away from a desk. This is where the concept of wearable devices becomes interesting. The term “wearable device” is used to describe a new class of electronic devices that are worn by the user. This includes devices worn on the arm, such as smart watches and fitness trackers to devices worn on the face such as Google Glass.
Wearables are positioned to change how users on site interact with technology. Instead of opening a laptop or pulling out a mobile device to check messages, users may be instantly alerted on their smartwatch when a safety issue arises, or a change order is issued. Further, other wearable devices such as Google Glass may enable new forms of communication on site. A worker equipped with the device (which includes a video camera) may stream images of a task they are working on to their team back at the office who may provide assistance.
Lauren Hasegawa is a structural engineer and the co-founder of construction software company Bridgit.