Four Technologies That Will Power the Jobsite of Tomorrow
The built world faces an exciting decade ahead. The rapid acceleration of emerging technologies such as voice and augmented reality, growing ubiquity of internet connectivity with the arrival of 5G and advances in machine learning to convert big data into smart, actionable insights, will all amalgamate to create the fully connected, highly efficient jobsite of tomorrow. To realize this future, specific technologies will need to converge with one another, creating a sum that is greater than its parts. Below are the four most important technologies for the future of the built world, their current state, future potential and application on jobsites to empower project managers and workers.
Connectivity and the Internet of Things
The key to efficiency and understanding what’s happening on a project requires project managers to be fed a stream of real-time information from every corner of the jobsite. In order to acquire that single-source of truth, there needs to be proper internet connectivity that allows data capture to the cloud and then a simultaneous "push" to project managers in real time. While standard internet service via a telecommunications company (e.g., Verizon) can provide the most reliable, secure connection, it’s difficult to set up the proper network, connections and beacons when a project starts with nothing but a sprawling piece of empty land.
Solutions such as AirCards can allow project managers to tap into cellular networks from any location, while Point-to-Point wireless solutions can create a long-range access point via a satellite dish if it has a line of sight to a provider’s antennae. Both solutions, while useful, could run into spotty service as a building is erected and other objects like machinery can obstruct the connections. Looking to the future, Low Earth Orbit Satellites could be a viable solution that enables internet connectivity to be beamed down from space. There are currently 3,328 LEOs orbiting earth, with 1,441 of these satellites launched by Elon Musk and SpaceX as part of the Starlink program.
Chip manufacturers such as Qualcomm are arming smartphones and other devices with chips that can connect to both LEOs and 5G networks. This increased and more reliable internet source should be paired with elements of the jobsite that can be made ‘smart.’ Machinery, entrance ways and even concrete can be armed with micro-sensors to push pertinent information to project managers, creating a fully connected, holistic solution.
Voice Technology and the Heads-Up Environment
There are hundreds of millions of Alexa and Google vocal assistant devices in the United States, billions of search queries via voice every month, and tens of thousands of third party products that are now voice-enabled. That being said, voice technology hasn’t taken off on jobsites due to lack of an ergonomic, hands-free “hearable.” Also, while Alexa and Google can handle millions of tasks like setting timers, turning on lights or playing music, these intents aren’t relevant or hyper-focused enough for the built world. Luckily, with purpose-built solutions by the biggest construction players, paired with hardware advancements in hearables, a voice-first future should be realized over the course of the next five years.
It can’t come soon enough, as voice provides a safer environment, creates efficiencies and has zero learning curve. Anyone who speaks a language has mastered the user interface of voice. The ability for a project manager or worker to access reports, training or FAQs, memorialize information through dictation or even get status updates on materials and deliveries without having to look down at a device will be a game changer. The noise-cancelling technology in hearables such as AirPods will continue to advance, allowing workers to be understood clearly even when in the presence of forklifts or bulldozers, which can operate at a deafening 85+dBA audio level.
Augmented Reality and Digital Twins
While there is plenty of hype and chatter about the metaverse, the construction industry will always be focused on building in the real world. This doesn’t mean that elements of those virtual worlds, such as 3D CAD models, projected field layouts and other pertinent digital information should be kept in a silo. Augmented reality has burst onto the scene to allow project managers to overlay this digital information onto its physical counterparts, creating digital twins and helping to provide visual context and clarity throughout the entire lifecycle of the project.
Precise accuracy has held back augmented reality from being widely adopted, as a few millimeters in error when laying electrical wiring or plumbing can result in inefficient and costly rework. The latest advances in light detection and ranging (LiDAR), which is now available on new iPhone sand iPads as well as many other devices, offer hyper-precise geospatial measurements. The technology is able to map, or “see,” the world in real-time at a clarity that far surpasses the human eye.
While it’s still early days and the majority of AR use cases still require holding up a smartphone or tablet, tech giants like Apple, Google, Snapchat and Facebook have thousands of engineers working on head-mounted devices and smart glasses. These devices will become invaluable tools for the construction workers of the future.
Robotics and Human Enhancement
Robotics will be critically important for the future of the built world. Productivity woes, tedious tasks and unsafe working conditions plague almost every jobsite, and robotics can provide a solution to all three of these problems. While robots may feel like an existential, job stealing threat when Elon Musk announced a humanoid Tesla Bot that will “make physical work a choice.” True robotics have simple, focused use cases.
Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot is the perfect companion for site progress monitoring. Armed with LiDAR sensors, advanced mobility to traverse dynamic environments and cloud connectivity, Spot can autonomously capture 360° images and video to create a snapshot of a jobsite overtime. This robot, which aesthetically looks like a dog to further the perception that Spot is truly a helper, can be utilized in various ways based on the needs of the jobsite.
Other robotic solutions can provide brawn, not just brains. Tybot from Advanced Construction Robotics can handle the physically intense process of rebar tying, with the ability to tie 1,100 intersections in an hour. HadrianX is a mobile bricklaying robot that can safely build structures from a 3D CAD model. Its speed and precision allows it to lay the equivalent of a residential house in situ in a day. These types of robots reduce schedule risk and can give a clearer timeline to a project manager.
The built world has an exciting future ahead, and while many companies and project managers would wish these above technologies to be at their full potential and deployable today, they should take a crawl, walk, run approach to the jobsite of tomorrow.
Utilizing technology to solve singular pain points, even if it means building a purpose-based solution instead of an off-the-shelf option, will result in the small wins that can add up to big victories down the road. Starting narrow and focused, understanding and taking a thoughtful approach to each technology, and being strategic in deployment will be the key differentiator of the best builders of tomorrow.