PropTech may get more airtime, but the overlapping and complementary area of ConTech is equally as rife with exciting developments. Of particular interest is the likelihood that building sites of the future will increasingly rely on tech solutions that are currently seen by many as mere PropTech gimmicks.
When speaking of drones, consumers often envisage the sophisticated “flying robots” that are going to serve as our taxis in Dubai, whilst also delivering our weekly shopping from Amazon, should regulation relax. In the property world, most people still think of drones as a means of delivering glossy marketing videos; a gimmick that can help sell developments. However, drones have the potential to be far more than this for the property industry: they can be information systems, making data collection easier, faster and safer.
Whilst regulation currently limits their scope (as pilots must maintain direct visual contact at all times and obtain CAA permission for use in congested areas) the potential of drones for surveying and construction is enormous. They can be fitted with ultrasonic sensors for avoiding collisions, air quality detectors, cloud point survey capability that feeds directly into your BIM model, and even thermal imaging capability for identifying areas of thermal inefficiency. For surveying, where previously you’d have to use a cherry-picker or scaffolding, you can now simply use a drone, subject to the aforementioned regulatory requirements.
On a construction site, drones can have a significant impact on both site safety and the project delivery schedule, with construction giants such as Bouygues, Bechtel, and Vinci all reportedly exploring the use of drones on their projects as live, interactive progress maps. However, there is undoubtedly an element of “big brother” beneath this cold functionality. Drone-collected data can feed into volumetric measurements so that stockpiles of costly resources can be closely monitored for theft, while drones can also continually fly over the site tracking construction progress and pinpointing where the project is falling behind schedule. Such drone-collected data even allows you to compare the as-built conditions during each phase of construction against the original specifications, highlighting any deviation from the CDs. Nevertheless, drone-collected data can be just as good at protecting construction workers as it is at monitoring their work. High risk and important jobs, such as inspecting scaffolding and cranes, can be undertaken by the drone, thus delivering huge safety upgrades. You can also beam real-time monitoring of moving cranes and active excavation areas into a control room, which not only enhances site inductions and decision making but; according to Crossrail, reduces previously unidentified risks.
Whilst we’re beginning to see drones assisting construction workers in these ways, the future could also see drones partially replacing them. A Skycatch drone can provide the eyes for an automated bulldozer: feeding a 3D model of the construction site’s latest conditions to the computer that’s plotting the bulldozer’s course. A large drone could fix cables, lay bricks and potentially even have the data it captures with cloud point survey used in conjunction with 3D printers to replace building components. PwC estimated that in the infrastructure and construction industries, the current value of labour and services likely for replacement by drones is a staggering $42.4 billion. A lot may hinge on the regulatory environment, but the potential of drones is undeniable.
Drone technology isn’t the only tool currently dismissed by many as a “marketing gimmick”, which has far reaching implications for construction efficiency. Augmented Reality (AR) can superimpose far more than just your furniture options and paint choices onto a real world environment. It can enable a project team to view an augmented overlay of a BIM model as they walk through their construction site. They can see RFIs and change orders augmented over the relevant area as well as the pipes and ductwork that is hidden from the naked eye. Market leaders like AECOM and Gensler are apparently experimenting with HoloLens to gain these benefits and there is a sense that the current applications are merely the tip of the iceberg. Start-ups like Daqri are well placed to transform the ease and extent to which AR can be used on construction sites by developing helmets with integrated AR capability.
AR isn’t just valuable for the initial construction team, with companies such as Bimevoke and Bentley Systems working towards establishing AR as a standard tool for maintenance. Imagine the time you could potentially save if you go to repair a pump and a QR code placed there triggers 3D imagery of the tools you need, labels left by the engineer who installed it over the various components and even a demonstration of the steps you need to undertake to repair the pump.
I strongly believe these technologies will become a staple of the construction industry. I see my company Built-ID ultimately delivering, via AR, data on far more than just the team behind the project you’re interested in and the images and descriptions of their work.
Building owners as well as their consulting teams and tenants could download the original as-built BIM model from Built-ID, before holding up their tablet in the space and immediately seeing how the pipes or the ductwork were laid out. This would not only save time for consultants working on a retrofit project but enable their clients to better understand highly complex BIM models. They could build on the model, leave digital notes and pass it on with the sale of the asset so that future teams also reap the benefits of their work. AR can essentially become an information delivery and engagement tool that stops us working in silos and reinventing the wheel throughout the life cycle of a building.
However, my clear enthusiasm for these technologies is not to say that AR and drones can revolutionise construction in isolation. The technological enhancement is only as good as the model it is projecting or feeding into. With AR, if the BIM model isn’t accurate (or the positioning is hampered by a weak signal), the full potential of AR cannot be met. Equally, the last thing a construction project needs is more data, drone collected or otherwise, if they don’t have adequate software for managing and utilising it. This means that the industry has to wholly embrace some of the brilliant SaaS platforms that are emerging, BIM, data sharing and great connectivity for the power of both drones and AR to harnessed effectively. To see tangible results, we need to first adopt and embrace tech more widely. Whether this will happen remains to be seen.