Smarter Construction With Internet of Things

"Internet of Things" will enable smarter projects with improved worker safety and efficiency along with advanced structural and infrastructure monitoring—all due to improved communication technology and lean/agile designs.
By Geoff Mulligan
January 12, 2020

By 2020 there will be billions of "Internet of Things" devices that enable smarter homes, intelligent transportation, smart agriculture and smart cities. But what about buildings and the construction industry? Construction has been using Internet of Things technology for years, calling it M2M or machine to machine. Now Internet of Things will allow construction of smarter projects. These improvements will come in three different areas—better worker safety and efficiency, advancements in structural monitoring and smarter infrastructure monitoring—all through improvements in communication technology and microprocessors and embracing lean/agile designs.

Smart Workers Working Smarter

By identifying the location of equipment and workers, augmenting workers knowledge and advising of proper safety procedures the construction process and construction site can be made safer and more efficient. Today it is possible to track the usage of construction equipment and tools and pinpoint their exact location on the jobsite. No longer should a worker get to the 15th floor only to find out the necessary tool is back on the ground or not even on the jobsite. Supervisors can identify the necessary equipment and ensure that it is on site and in the proper location, thereby reducing wasted working time. Simple “electronic tags” make working smarter by attaching to equipment and sending “beacons” to receivers located on the construction site. The receivers then map the exact location of the each of the beacons and, in turn, the equipment on a smart phone. Commercial off the shelf (COTS) systems for this type of tracking are now available. These same types of tags can also be used to track the location of all personnel, while on site, so that supervisors and workers do not spend unnecessary time looking or waiting for their colleagues—bringing greater efficiencies.

Looking ahead, with technology such as augmented reality in the form of specialized safety glasses, construction workers can see proper safety techniques and receive warnings about dangerous actions. While still in early stages and with only a handful of COTS solutions, AR is coming to the construction industry. These AR devices will have the ability to identify tools and hardware and warn of improper usage. Soon these systems will be able to warn of high voltage or instruct on proper procedures, in turn bringing improved worker competence and safety.

Smarter Structures

Electronic tags can also be used to capture and send environmental data. Tags are now available that can measure temperature, humidity, vibration, light, weight, etc. and can be built into the structure of buildings, bridges or roads. These tags can then transmit measurements to engineers who can monitor the current conditions and anticipate structural aging. For example, tags that are dropped into poured concrete can be used to monitor the curing process.

Additionally, simple strain-gauge sensors can be installed during the construction phase on critical structural components to monitor its life and integrity. The same sensors that were used to monitor the concrete curing process could continue to measure for structural strain and monitor for any changes that might warn of impending failure.

Today, battery powered tags can live for upwards of 10 years, but by using new radio technology, lower powered microprocessors and energy harvesting, the industry is moments away from having permanently installed sensors that are capable of monitoring a structure for the entirety of its lifespan.

Smarter Infrastructure

When people talk about smart buildings, they are generally thinking about smart infrastructure, such as smart lights or smart HVAC. While there have been great improvements over the years in both areas, leading to more energy efficient buildings, the journey isn’t nearly complete. With the availability of low-cost environmental sensors and simple motion sensors, (as opposed to having just a few measurements per floor) it is now possible to take a much more granular approach to monitoring and maintaining infrastructure.

For example, these new tools can allow for cross ventilation rather than wasting energy to heat or cool the air. These devices can also better monitor people’s movements to become more knowledgeable about room occupancy and control both temperature and lighting based on that knowledge.

Additionally, sensors can be installed to measure and control power usage. So much energy is wasted from devices left on and, in the past, it was difficult to determine the amount of power any specific machine was using. Now, however, simple power sensors can be snapped around any and all power cords to capture the current flow and provide very detailed sub-metering.

“What is measured can be managed. What is not, can’t!”

By better understanding where energy is being used, the better to eliminate waste.

by Geoff Mulligan
Geoff Mulligan is an IEEE member, CTO for IIot Jabil and co-founder of Skylight Digital, a developer and consultant on IoT, Privacy and Security, a former White House Presidential Innovation Fellow, and U.S. representative to the United Nations Smart and Sustainable Cities project. While serving as a Presidential Innovation Fellow working on Cyber-Physical Systems for OSTP and NIST he co-created and launched the SmartAmerica Challenge. Mr. Mulligan was the founding Chairman of both the LoRa Alliance, growing it to over 500 members, and the IPSO Alliance, making it the global voice for open standards for the IoT. Jabil is a $25B contract manufacturer that is turning its considerable technology and manufacturing acumen toward delivering on the possibilities and potential of the IoT.

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