Less Dust, More Data. Construction Sites Have Gone High-Tech / by Scott A.

I must admit that standing in a meeting room in the heart of the City of London, I felt a tiny bit silly wearing the Google GOOGL -0.14%-glasses-like set up. But it’s something that the civil engineers of tomorrow may well have to get used to. While this particular headset was a prototype, augmented reality, in which virtual features are laid over a physical, real-word environment, is already making waves on building sites.

I got to play with tech in question at global engineering giant Bechtel’s UK headquarters, during an interview with Information Applications Manager, Stephen Smith. I was there to find out more about the growing use of sensors, cloud computing and autonomous vehicles on building sites – putting the smart into smart construction. Although they don’t tend to brag about it (try searching for “augmented reality” on their website), Bechtel are quietly making the average infrastructure project considerably more scientific. “In a way, we deliberately undersell the technology aspect of it” said Smith when I asked why they’re not shouting about this from the rooftops. “The use of data has become an inherent part of every project – it’s not a separate, standalone product.”

Bechtel really aren’t in the business of developing hardware – huge construction projects are more their thing – so for them, the use of tech is just about making that process easier. But that’s not to say that the tech isn’t cool. Take their augmented reality app for example, which at the moment, is run on an iPad. It uses the tablet’s camera to detect the presence of certain features – say the edge of a wall – and the locations of QR codes – which are laid out during construction – to figure out where you’re standing on the site. It then connects to the master blueprint of the final building and overlays a simplified version of it onto the real-world as seen through the camera. That way, inspections can be done visually, and progress recorded digitally via the app. There are some very practical reasons that Bechtel and other engineering firms are investing so heavily in this sort of technology – as well as improving safety and quality, it saves time. As Smith told me, “Inspections used to be done with a drawing in hand. Engineers would manually tick off completed tasks and write notes on the paper document. Someone else would transcribe those notes, and then that would go into another system. The Virtual Project Delivery approach means that everything is connected – changes made through the app automatically update all the related documentation, and even mark the changes on the master 3D model.”

The headset that I wore is an offshoot of that same idea. An engineer wearing it on site could, in theory at least, move their head around to inspect the site both physically and virtually. And although the projected data looks simple, all of the details are embedded in it. Of course, the thing about any headset is that (by its very nature) it forces you not to focus on your surroundings, but on the information being displayed on the visor. And given how safety-conscious the construction sector is as a rule, this has limited their practical use thus far. But that hasn’t stopped others from looking into the practicalities of heads-up displays for construction workers – in January this year, an augmented reality company called Daqri launched their own ‘smart hardhat’, which also happens to look pleasingly like a 1980s-vision-of-the-helmet-of-the-future.

 

Laurie Winkless ,  

Contributor

I am a writer and physicist, obsessed with the science of cities

Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.

I must admit that standing in a meeting room in the heart of the City of London, I felt a tiny bit silly wearing the Google GOOGL -0.14%-glasses-like set up. But it’s something that the civil engineers of tomorrow may well have to get used to. While this particular headset was a prototype, augmented reality, in which virtual features are laid over a physical, real-word environment, is already making waves on building sites.

I got to play with tech in question at global engineering giant Bechtel’s UK headquarters, during an interview with Information Applications Manager, Stephen Smith. I was there to find out more about the growing use of sensors, cloud computing and autonomous vehicles on building sites – putting the smart into smart construction. Although they don’t tend to brag about it (try searching for “augmented reality” on their website), Bechtel are quietly making the average infrastructure project considerably more scientific. “In a way, we deliberately undersell the technology aspect of it” said Smith when I asked why they’re not shouting about this from the rooftops. “The use of data has become an inherent part of every project – it’s not a separate, standalone product.”

Augmented reality based on a tablet lays a simplified version of a building’s plan over an image of the ‘real’ site. Eventually, the plan is to miniaturise this to fit into a pair of smart glasses (Image provided by Bechtel)

Bechtel really aren’t in the business of developing hardware – huge construction projects are more their thing – so for them, the use of tech is just about making that process easier. But that’s not to say that the tech isn’t cool. Take their augmented reality app for example, which at the moment, is run on an iPad. It uses the tablet’s camera to detect the presence of certain features – say the edge of a wall – and the locations of QR codes – which are laid out during construction – to figure out where you’re standing on the site. It then connects to the master blueprint of the final building and overlays a simplified version of it onto the real-world as seen through the camera. That way, inspections can be done visually, and progress recorded digitally via the app. There are some very practical reasons that Bechtel and other engineering firms are investing so heavily in this sort of technology – as well as improving safety and quality, it saves time. As Smith told me, “Inspections used to be done with a drawing in hand. Engineers would manually tick off completed tasks and write notes on the paper document. Someone else would transcribe those notes, and then that would go into another system. The Virtual Project Delivery approach means that everything is connected – changes made through the app automatically update all the related documentation, and even mark the changes on the master 3D model.”

The headset that I wore is an offshoot of that same idea. An engineer wearing it on site could, in theory at least, move their head around to inspect the site both physically and virtually. And although the projected data looks simple, all of the details are embedded in it. Of course, the thing about any headset is that (by its very nature) it forces you not to focus on your surroundings, but on the information being displayed on the visor. And given how safety-conscious the construction sector is as a rule, this has limited their practical use thus far. But that hasn’t stopped others from looking into the practicalities of heads-up displays for construction workers – in January this year, an augmented reality company called Daqri launched their own ‘smart hardhat’, which also happens to look pleasingly like a 1980s-vision-of-the-helmet-of-the-future.

Robotic drones packed with cameras are quickly becoming the norm on large construction sites. By marking out ‘registration points’ on the ground for the drone to recognise, an accurate image can be built up over a few hours (Image provided by Bechtel)

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Other wearable technologies are far more developed though. Smith told me about a liquefied natural gas plant they’re building in Australia. The scale of the project is enormous – over three sites, 13 Eiffel Tower’s worth of structural steel will be used. In one site alone, 60,000 electronic tags were used monitor the movement of materials and vehicles. RFID, or radio-frequency identification, was at the heart of these tags – it uses a small computer chip surrounded by a coil of wire (acting as a radio antenna) to uniquely mark an item. When combined with radio-based tracking, RFID tags can be used to pinpoint individual objects… an enormous pile of steel bars, for example. Similar sensors can also be used to improve safety on sites. Specific zones marked by cheap, robust ‘anchor points’ can warn sensor-wearing workers if that zone is unsafe for them to be in.

Civil engineers are also beginning to embed sensors within the infrastructure itself – the temperature of concrete can be monitored as it cures, and bridges can contain strain gauges or fiber-optic sensors that can warn of crack formation long before any visible signs of damage emerge. As this approach to construction becomes more common, our buildings will be truly smart – embedded sensors will change the way maintenance is done too. But as much as I love sensors (and I really, really do), my favourite new construction-related technologies are all autonomous vehicles.

Bechtel have recently used drones to continuously monitor the excavation progress on a Canadian construction project. Drones can map a site “up to 50 times faster than ground-based land surveying”, and I’d imagine, at a considerably lower cost too. Smith told me that the “…drone goes out on a predefined path, so it gradually builds an image of the whole site. It can even fly back and replace its own battery when it runs out of charge.” On the same project, even the diggers had a little help from computers, “…all of the grading and excavation is based on 3D modelling. The ‘driver’ is there overseeing it, but the digger itself is essentially self-driven.” When I asked Smith if he felt that these technologies were removing the need for humans on building sites, his answer was clear “I certainly don’t believe so. As we see it, these technologies allow us to automate the mundane repetitive tasks and let the humans focus on their areas of expertise. And improving efficiencies benefits everyone.”

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