Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and the Construction Industry
Technology has dramatically changed the workplace in recent years, and several industries have been transformed completely. Traditional newspapers are being forced to merge or close as people read more online – for free. And the ability to book flights and hotels directly has almost completely killed the travel agency business model.
So what effect will emerging technologies have in the construction sector?
Augmented Reality (AR)
Although the technology has existed for several years already, Apple is about to take augmented reality (AR) mainstream with the release of the new iPhone. Using the camera built into your phone, apps can be used to superimpose images and data over your environment.
Take the new Ikea app for instance. Not only can you browse the Ikea product catalogue, but you can “see” what each item would look like in your living room. Using the app you can decide whether the furniture suits your décor – or if it will physically fit in the available space.
For the construction industry, Augmented Reality provides all manner of ways to solve problems onsite. In theory, AR could be used to model a complete housing estate, and then view it on location. This is not only a powerful sales tool but allows site managers to identify and resolve potential issues in advance.
Where Augmented Reality overlays information and graphics on the real world, Virtual Reality is used to construct a completely virtual scenario that can be explored and played back anytime, any place. Architects commonly produce 3D computer models of buildings before they are physically constructed, using them as a video walkthrough for their clients.
Virtual Reality takes things a step further, allowing visitors to explore that 3D model on their own terms. VR apps typically require some form of headset or goggles (like Microsoft’s HoloLens device). These units use sensors and cameras to detect the wearer’s movements and update what they see – creating the illusion of reality.
VR applications for the construction industry will mostly apply to the planning phase of a project, again helping site managers and architects identify and resolve problems before work begins on site.
Almost every industry is looking at robotics as a way to reduce costs and increase efficiency. Most modern production lines are heavily reliant on robots to cut and assemble parts and to package finished products. Many of the materials used on a construction site will have had at least some degree of robotic involvement too.
Currently, robots do not have any role to play on site. The complexities of each project and the sheer number of unknowns means that robots are not intelligent or powerful enough to cope. Even if robots can be designed to cope with uneven terrain, changing environment, and the inhospitable conditions of the modern construction site, they are unlikely to be cheap, significantly increasing the overall cost of a project.
Some manufacturers are experimenting with “wearable exoskeletons” to increase the strength and stamina of construction workers, but these systems are not true robots because they still rely on the human wearer to control them – these units cannot “think” for themselves.
Internet of Things (IoT)
Technology has developed to the point that virtually anything can be measured and monitored using sensors. Production lines use sensors to measure temperature, volume, throughput and more. These sensors are connected wirelessly to control systems, allowing them to automatically adjust production for maximum efficiency.
IoT sensors are cheap to buy and install, and there are potential applications for construction sites in the future. Sensors could even be worn by workers on site and used to cut power or sound an alarm if they are too close to a known danger – like exposed electricity or heavy machinery. Like all IoT projects, the only limit is the ingenuity of the project manager.
Time for a reality check
The majority of processes on a construction site are heavily reliant on people. AR, VR, robotics and IoT may all find their way onto construction sites in future, but only as a way to help workers to operate more efficiently and safely. They are not yet capable of taking over jobs on site.
These technologies will undoubtedly improve over time, but the foreseeable future is likely to be most useful in the pre-construction phase of a project. As pointed out earlier, architects and project planners will be able to better plan the details of a construction project – which should help to keep people safer on site too.
For builders, plumbers, electricians and roofers – the people actually working on site – this is great news. Unlike other industries, jobs in construction are relatively future-proof, which means that a machine will not be stealing your job anytime soon.