These trends are rewriting the way work gets done.
The internet of things (IoT) is changing countless industries, and construction is no exception. The construction jobsite of the future — and increasingly, the present — is a connected one. IoT technology is helping contractors perform work more efficiently, reduce risk and improve safety.
At the heart of IoT lie data and automation. Companies are beginning to redesign their processes to take advantage of both. These are some of the top IoT trends in construction to keep an eye on through 2020 and beyond.
The real value of the internet of things is the data those “things” generate and collect. Increasingly, finding ways to leverage that data is key to success in the industry. But many construction companies are ill-equipped to translate data into actionable results, according to management consulting firm FMI. “Many firms struggle to understand how big data can be used to improve performance or processes,” wrote the authors of the FMI white paper “Big Data = Big Questions for the Engineering and Construction Industry.” FMI reports that less than 20 percent budget for analytics.
Nevertheless, contractors are seeing the need to get in front of IoT data and deploy the tools and analytics needed to make use of it. For example, according to a recent report by Dodge Data & Analytics and Triax, “Using Technology to Improve Risk Management in Construction,” about three-quarters of contractors believe IoT-driven safety and risk data can help control risks to workers, and about half see it reducing other risks, such as those related to property damage and construction defects.
Larger companies are tackling the data problem head-on by creating roles such as construction technologist, director of technology integration and chief data officer. For the first time, in 2019, “construction technology/IT systems manager” was one of the three top job titles among respondents in JBKnowledge’s annual Construction Technology Report.
To make data more accessible, break it out of silos, and address the problem of software tools that don’t talk to each other, technologically advanced companies are also turning to cloud-based project management platforms.
The IoT requires broadband to enable 4K video transfer, predictive maintenance, 3D mapping, real-time automation, augmented reality (AR) and more. Higher-volume, higher-speed data transfer will come from 5G cellular networks. While 2019 saw the rollout of 5G service in a handful of cities, 2020 will see more widespread coverage.
There are three primary modes for 5G. The mode that was most broadly available in 2019, Enhanced Mobile Broadband, is an incremental improvement over 4G. An interesting 5G variation is Massive Machine-type Communications (mMTC), which supports low-power devices with long battery lives — think GPS devices, RFID tags, and smart sensors for monitoring concrete curing. The advent of mMTC could increase the reliability and availability of these sensors.
Soon, companies that use drones will outnumber ones that don’t. According to JBKnowledge’s 2019 Construction Technology Report, 43 percent of companies used drones on the jobsite in 2019, a 5 percent increase from the year before. Many contractors are working with drone providers, including end-to-end drone service providers such as United Rentals, while a smaller number are using an in-house drone program.
The ROI of drones for many applications is becoming clear. Drones are playing a role in site surveying, progress monitoring, inspections, volumetric analysis, 3D model generation and more. Some companies are pushing drone use in even more innovative directions. Gaining traction now, for example, are drones fitted with infrared sensors for finding thermal leaks.
While many drones are operated by remote control, the construction and industrial sectors are beginning to see increased use of drones that operate autonomously or semi-autonomously.
Automated safety monitoring
Thanks to the synthesis of artificial intelligence (AI), cameras and other sensors, new IoT applications are starting to take hold, including automated monitoring. This technology is meant to help companies improve safety, security and compliance.
Tools from companies such as INDUS.AI and SmartVid.io use machine learning and image recognition software to search photos and videos — sometimes in real time — with the goal of identifying dangerous situations on active worksites, such as workers not wearing the proper PPE or equipment being used in dangerous ways.
The adoption of wearables has been relatively slow, but it’s gathering steam. According to the Q4 2019 Commercial Construction Index from USG Corporation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a scant 6 percent of contractors surveyed are using wearables now, but 33 percent expect to use them in the next three years.
In the Dodge/Triax report, wearables emerged as one of the top two new technology types for risk management. Nearly three-quarters of respondents said they believe the IoT will help them control occupational risks.
To help keep workers safer, companies are tracking workers’ locations using wearables such as the Spot-r Clip from Triax. Another company, Scan-Link, has a product that uses RFID tags to detect humans standing behind moving equipment and alert the operator before an accident happens. Wearable biosensor devices already monitor worker heart rates and even take ECGs, and wearables that look for signs of distress or fatigue are coming.
Cost is often a barrier to the adoption of any new technology, but in some cases, insurance companies could ease the burden. To help companies adopt wearables, for example, some insurance carriers are offering pilot programs that feature cost sharing. After all, a safer worksite is a win for everyone.
Dave Johnson is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who has been writing about all aspects of business and technology since before there was an internet.