As the pandemic marches on, pressure is increasing to create ways for people to experience and understand spaces virtually in order to keep safe distances. Sharing data more intuitively and intimately also top the “want” list for innovation.
So for this list of five construction technology 2021 trends to watch, it is clear that builders are also looking for creative ways to keep people safe under current conditions, removing them from physical sites while accelerating their understanding of what goes on there.
1. Pocket LIDAR
LIDAR is the most precise, efficient way to verify that what has been built on a construction site matches the digital BIM (Building Information Modeling) model. Existing laser-scanning hardware is bulky and awkward, and most are uni-taskers. But that’s changing, led by two giants of consumer technology: Apple and Google.
The Apple iPhone 12 Pro and the newest Apple iPad Pro come with LIDAR scanners, which use nanosecond-long laser pulses to measure the distance from objects. This data can be aggregated to create 3D maps of incredible depth and complexity.
Similarly, Google is working on a radar-based system that operates as an advanced motion detector. For consumer smartphones, LIDAR systems will primarily boost augmented-reality applications such as Apple’s ARkit, integrating synthesized environments and characters onto existing ones. That can be a great help on construction sites, too, for transposing BIM models onto the site, flying the finished building’s circulation routes, or detecting use patterns before the drywall cures.
Bringing pocket-size LIDAR capabilities onto construction sites is an ideal way to manage the extreme dynamism of these places. As materials and personnel flow across sites, LIDAR can document each stage with unparalleled precision in near real time. It can also be used to maintain and repair large infrastructure, especially across places that are too vast—such as power grids—for a pair of human eyes and a CCTV channel.
Indoors, LIDAR can detect small cracks or imperfections in walls that could become safety risks. Construction safety also benefits from more detailed, up-to-date circulation guidance and a reduced need for in-person inspections of dangerous places. Apple is currently investigating head-mounted LIDAR sensors, ideal for workers who need to go hands-free while using tools or driving heavy machinery.
2. Charging Up the Construction Site
As batteries get bigger, going electric on construction sites means cleaner, more sustainable operation. Heavy construction equipment is following the rechargeable trend. Excavators, cranes, drilling rigs, and heavy trucks are becoming just as carbon-neutral and efficient as their power source—which could be solar, wind, or geothermal.
Driven by plummeting battery costs, Gammons Construction has deployed shipping-container-size Enertainer lithium-ion batteries, creating construction sites free of diesel fumes. Beyond the smaller carbon footprint, these units (which can be purpose-built or retrofits of diesel engines) are more dependable and require less maintenance. The decrease in noise and pollution also allows construction to go on longer in residential areas.
Many of these units still require power cords, but that could also become a thing of the past. San Francisco–based startup and Autodesk Technology Centers resident PHION Technologies has developed a prototype over-the-air wireless power and data system that can reach nearly a dozen feet to recharge devices, no power cords or charging pads required. The ultimate goal is scalable power across a 30-foot radius that also delivers position-tracking functionality for construction robots and aids wireless network connectivity.
3. Eyes on (or in) the Site From Anywhere
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a crash course in remote collaboration for everyone. But even before the pandemic struck, some companies had been researching how construction software and hardware can better facilitate collaboration over distance. Resolve is one example. It allows designers and builders to inspect BIM models at different scales, looming over them like a giant or at ground level, going floor-by-floor. Using the Oculus Quest wireless headset and operable with Autodesk BIM 360, Resolve translates complex models into immersive virtual-reality environments, makes speech-to-text annotations, and lets colorful avatars measure and sketch within virtual models.
Autodesk Technology Centers resident ZEITdice, from Canada, takes a different approach to remote collaboration using high-definition, time-lapse cameras instead of digital models. By sorting through endless hours of footage of construction sites, ZEITdice uses machine learning to recognize patterns and anomalies, generating reports on efficiency and safety improvements and providing thermal and infrared imaging.
The hardware bringing this sort of data into the field is hands-free and intuitive to operate. Vuzix’s smart glasses contain a GPS sensor, 3-axis accelerometer, a speaker, a microphone, and a 4K video camera for seamless audio and visual communication. For those wanting to get their hands involved, Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 is responsive to touch and motion, allowing users to manipulate virtual images with a swipe or a wave.
4. Hardhat Drones
The first generation of drones for construction sites were there to look, not to touch. Their photogrammetry applications saved time and money—and boosted jobsite efficiency and safety. The new generation of aerial drones are getting their landing struts dirty, programmed to take the most dangerous or difficult jobs out of human hands.
Emerging from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Autodesk Technology Centers resident Skymul is developing a drone system that can tie rebar intersections, one of most tedious and physically taxing jobs on a construction site. It uses machine learning to map rebar connections autonomously. Likewise, Terra Drone has been experimenting with using drones to drop seismic sensors across vast mountainous terrain.
And UAV giant DJI just released a new agricultural drone with powerful spraying capabilities that could be applicable to construction sites. The DJI AGRAS T20 has a sprayer payload tank that can carry up to 44 pounds with nozzles that project 23 feet. Its omnidirectional radar can track objects from all horizontal directions, and its software and hardware monitors crop health and generates variable treatment procedures. For orchards, it can generate routes simply by examining the shape of trees. This weighty payload capacity could also work for construction sites, as drones are called on to apply paint or adhesives, to water a green roof, or other uses.
5. Contact Tracing for Safety and Efficiency
The COVID-19 crisis has made it clear that contact tracing across a construction site is critical for workers’ health and safety. Construction sites are heavily trafficked, complex, and constantly changing—an ideal place for an airborne contagion to spread.
Several companies are focusing on how to track health and circulation data across sites to keep people safe while they build. The WakeCap system uses helmet-mounted units that communicate with a receiver, using signal strength as a proxy for distance, and thus location, on a site. These units can be powerful aids for site workflow and social distancing, tracking circulation choke points and mapping the most accessible locations for toolsheds and break rooms.
Whereas WakeCap has prized ease of use, the wearable-sensor company WorkerSense has opted for more complexity. It offers helmet-mounted sensors that detect temperature, humidity, light levels, and motion across nine axes. Its software platforms monitor crew locations, manpower composition data, cost codes, personal protective equipment usage, certification enforcement, incident logs, and environmental conditions. Nokia is developing automated thermal-detection systems accurate to within 0.3 degrees Celsius.