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Drones, Robots and Clouds – Oh My

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Technology is moving faster than the regulatory environment in terms of evolving the future construction worksite. Still, the opportunities are exciting, and we should embrace change, says WT Partnership Managing Director Nick Deeks.

Drones are the one technology where the regulatory regime needs to shift in order to maximise their benefits for construction. Deeks explains that while drones have a “growing foothold” in engineering projects, such as mining and infrastructure, there are potentials for Australian buildings yet to be explored.

The benefits of drones, particularly used for survey work, include their speed—they can fly over the landscape and identify and accurately map its features fast. The new drones and the digital software associated with them can also quickly produce volumetric calculations that inform civil works and measure dimensions with a high degree of accuracy.

Since they are being operated “away from cities”, their use does not conflict with current regulations, for instance, those requiring drones to remain a certain distance from buildings.

Deeks says drones could be very efficient and effective for certain tasks involving buildings. They can, for example, provide façade inspections and roof inspections.

The concept of replacing people currently using abseiling equipment or conducting inspections from elevated work platforms should be more cost-effective. Nevertheless, rules and regulations, such as a requirement to have spotters at street level and the lengthy approval times involved, make drone use more expensive than the fundamentally riskier and time-consuming human labour option.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are other places around the world where drones are used for building and site survey work; UCLA’s Merced project in California can be a perfect example of it. Drones provided the data and imagery used for surveying, site reporting and weekly project updates.

Colliers International is using drones for due diligence inspections in Auckland and New Zealand. Komatsu relies on drones for various tasks on hundreds of building sites across Japan, including using them to identify potential safety hazards.

Deeks says he can see that within the next five years the situation in Australia will change—some form of drone or robot, or small unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAV) will be in use on a majority of Australian city construction sites.

They can deliver improvements across many major areas. The performance of progress inspections, especially when the data is linked to the project BIM model, could enhance work significantly. Advantages would include accurate and rapid assessment of as-built areas with the detailed design, compliance checks, clash detection, and monitoring of progress against the program.

Such technology is already on the verge of full commercial availability, for example, the Doxel robot. This UAV can monitor construction progress with observations linked to the BIM model—a 5D BIM model that also incorporates the bill of quantities and details of specific components and materials.

According to Deeks, we are on the brink of these kinds of technologies “coming to the fore” across the industry. Another piece of the future site coming our way is the use of robot UAVs to help make the process of delivery of materials to a specific area more efficient.

The current practice of using an Alimak to lift goods up creates a “critical path issue,” he explains. The work can only proceed as efficiently as the Alimak can be scheduled to deliver specific materials and labour to the floor.

One company in Japan is already using technology to overcome similar hurdles. The Shimz Smart Site is using three types of robots for a high-rise project: the Shimzu Robo-Carrier, a horizontal conveyor robot that transports materials; Robo-Welder, a welding robot for steel columns; and Robo-Buddy, a multipurpose robot that will build the ceilings.

In some ways, Deeks says, the new technologies, particularly where “robots” leverage 5D BIM are “kind of scary” from a quantity surveyor’s perspective. Seemingly, they are taking away some of the profession’s core tasks.

“It is now part of our business. You can either be scared of it, or you can be excited about it and embrace it,” says Deek.

However, the opportunity for QS professionals is to re-skill in the new technologies.

“The services we provide, and the way in which we deliver those services, are different now to how they were in the 1980s and 1990s ” he muses.

His own company is investigating app development, the use of artificial intelligence, and machine learning as part of its future-fit focus.

“It is now part of our business. You can either be scared of it, or you can be excited about it and embrace it,” says Deek.

Deeks says one of the other areas of innovation that underpins so many of the emerging advances and connectivity is cloud computing. Instead of separate servers storing data, the accessibility of the cloud means integration of offices across states or even countries.

Moreover, the amount of data, its complexity, and the speed at which it can be manipulated have all taken a light-speed leap. What is possible now might have seemed the stuff of a sci-fi production just a decade ago.

Peering into the crystal ball, Deeks says that we will soon see advances in supercomputers starting to enter the picture and influence work processes.

He observes that construction involves “an incredibly complex series of events.”

“We could find a better way of building, but the focus [currently] is more on the technology inside the building, home automation or domotics, where systems control lighting, climate, entertainment systems, appliances and can include home security such as access control and alarms.

“However, the smarts inside are still enclosed in brick/concrete, steel and glass. I wonder when we will find better, more sustainable building materials, and better ways of building.”

If you liked this article, here are a few eBooks and webinars you may enjoy:

Landing Drones in the Business of Construction


Drones on the Jobsite – Enabling Better Workflows


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