The Future of Construction Site Automation

How will emerging technologies impact and enhance your job site?
The construction site is changing rapidly. Automation, new technologies and methods—and the demands to continuously improve cost, schedule, safety and quality—are all pushing modern construction management into a completely new era. We hear the buzzwords: the Internet of Things, the connected jobsite, analytics. But what do they really mean for the day to day work on a jobsite? How will they really impact the true business goals of construction?

Life on the Construction Site of the Future
Paul Moore has been a project manager for eight years executing a variety of medium to larger commercial construction projects. In this story we imagine the near future and what a typical day would be like on Paul’s project.

Paul is fortunate to have the latest automated site monitoring system in place on this project. His day starts with a weather alert that flags several planned tasks as being potentially impacted. He is able to quickly coordinate with team members to make contingencies for those tasks to minimize schedule and staffing impacts. The recorded weather data is used during future contract discussions with subcontractors about weather impacts to their tasks.

Paul is concerned about a major assembly operation planned for today. He pops open the as-built image archive that the site monitoring system is providing. He is able to zoom in and confirm that the prior metal assemblies were indeed completed correctly, and so he gives the team the go ahead to proceed.

During his walk around, Paul receives an alert about the scheduled drone flight. He looks around to ensure that a flight would be safe and clicks “ok,” allowing the drone to take off from its nest. These aerial images are helpful in planning placement of some major material deliveries coming up. Paul also likes that the fully self-driving drones do not require the kind of operation or training time from his staff that the old ones did.

A small alert screen on his tablet shows the icons representing all staff currently onsite. Staff are automatically screened as they enter, and problems with credentials or safety gear are reflected in icon colors. A touch of the icon can send them a reminder message. All entrances and exits from the site are logged with summary reports available.

His tablet then pops up an urgent alert that he is copied on. The safety officer has received an alert that there is equipment detected in a restricted area. Since he is near the location, he walks over and directs the team to move the equipment and then clicks on the alert to mark it “handled.”

Paul then flips to his “asset planning” screen to see utilization of assets onsite and planned delivery/pickup schedules. He notices a “low” utilization on one of the large excavators. He makes a quick call to his crew and confirms that they indeed had been able to complete some earlier steps quicker than expected. He clicks on the “notify vendor” button ordering that excavator’s early pick up, helping him keep on budget.

He gets a call from the VP of construction, Don. Don was browsing the real-time camera feed images. He noticed that materials for the upcoming pad build had been delivered and placed on the south corner. This would be a problem for the next excavation steps. The alert to Paul meant they avoided delay.

Paul walks to the second-floor bridge structure that had been completed last week. He knows this will be a critical path next week. He pulls up the BIM augmented-reality app on his tablet to view the BIM model overlaid on the site. It describes the next assembly steps. He clicks the image archive for that viewpoint, and replays the timestamped images taken during the last assembly steps. He is able to confirm that the steps were done according to plan. He is confident they are ready for the next step.

Back in the trailer, Paul takes a quick look at the aerial imagery collected by the drone flights this morning. It is nicely overlaid on the floorplan from the BIM, and he quickly notices that there is a gap on the northwest corner. He reaches out to the team and finds out that some materials had been in the way of completing the excavation the day before but have since been moved, and that the team was planning to complete it later today.

Paul receives an alert on his tablet that a new materials delivery has just arrived on the site. The system automatically pops up the planned delivery schedule, so that he can see it is on track. The materials delivery is also displayed on a map of the site so he can quickly see that the location is acceptable. He likes that the site monitoring system will also generate an alert if that material leaves the site. This feature has cut down substantially on material theft from his projects.

At the end of the day, Paul does a final walk around, recording his notes verbally. The notes are automatically turned into a report and include relevant images captured by the site monitoring system. The report is filed to the BIM system.

As Paul heads home, he rests easy knowing that his supervisor will receive real-time alerts of anyone onsite after hours. He can address them directly or “defer” to the monitoring service for dispatch of police. This system helps with both theft deterrence as well as compliance with the company’s safety policies, reducing liability from trespassers.

How We Get There
The above scenario may seem farfetched or off in the distant future. It is not. Below, major trends in several technology areas and business processes that are contributing to the rapid realization of this future are outlined.

Building Information Modeling (BIM)
BIM provides the base framework for integrating and relating pieces of information about the project. It starts with a CAD model of the structures and can add cost, schedule and other information tied to the model. Imagery from the as-built site can be automatically related to the BIM, providing 3D structure and organization to the photographic documentation. The “time” portions of the BIM model also support automation around project milestones and material requirements.

Drones & Ground Robotics
Drones are being deployed today to provide site survey, photography and inspection functions on the construction site. Autonomy functions are starting to appear, allowing drones to operate without training-intensive human operation. Fully autonomous drone flights will allow repeatable image capture and other site monitoring functions to be carried out with minimal labor from the construction staff. Mobile ground robots can be assistants to the crew to move materials around the site, saving time, and improving safety.

Internet of Things (IoT)
The Internet of Things (IoT) is a broad, often confusing technology trend that has to do with processing, sensors and communications moving more and more into everyday “objects.” In the context of construction automation, this is most easily seen in an application like asset tracking. Today’s asset tracking is largely centered on GPS systems being added to large, heavy equipment. But there are a number of technologies, such as Bluetooth Low Energy beacon, that will help take asset tracking down to the tool level. Having low-cost, ubiquitous location and tracking information on assets and materials on the site will have a large impact on construction workflow. The same technologies can be applied to the tracking of people and access to site locations. As these become more widespread, they will be applied to managing workflow and staff, materials handling and safety. Today, embedded sensors with communications are being used to automatically measure curing of concrete and shaving days and weeks off construction schedules while maintaining necessary safety parameters.

Augmented Reality
Augmented Reality (AR) is a set of technologies used for displaying digital information overlaid on the real world. AR will be particularly relevant for bridging CAD/BIM models of structures to the structure being built. It will streamline and simplify all construction tasks that involve “matching” the plan with where you currently are in the process. AR can make information retrieval as simple as standing and looking at a site location and having (only) relevant information appear.

Wireless and self-powered systems
Nowhere is wireless/battery powered capability more valuable than on a construction site where the landscape is, literally, continuously changing. Running wires or even having power is most often not an option. Trends in low-power electronics and high-bandwidth wireless communications such as LTE will continue to have a huge impact on construction by being able to bring the digital tools directly onto the construction site instead of staying locked in the trailer.

Video and Sensor Analytics
Video or sensor analytics is a suite of technologies for using algorithms to do detection and identification of events and patterns in digital data such as images. This technology will have a large impact in such construction areas as automatically recording project status (e.g., automatic identification of a material or asset type and location), implementing safety policies and site security. Companies are already starting to deliver applications that can analyze workers on a site to determine if they are wearing necessary safety gear.

Automated Site Monitoring
Automated site monitoring is a systems-level approach to weaving together many of these technologies into the “nervous system” of the construction site. Sensor data flows into the automated site monitoring system and is combined with BIM information, safety policies, work procedures, user information and more to generate alerts and information to simplify the project team’s jobs—in real-time. The automated site monitoring system is aimed at reducing costs, improving safety, managing schedules and improving quality.

The Future Starts Now
This is Sensera System’s vision for the future of construction automation. We have already begun delivering this future with the most advanced and affordable automated site monitoring solutions on the market. This has made us the fastest growing construction site camera vendor. The future starts now!

Are Construction Cameras Worth It?

Costs and benefits vary by application

Construction Site Cameras are becoming more common on a wider range of projects, and for a wider range of uses. But are they worth the cost and the hassle? Figure 1 explores some of the benefits of using jobsite cameras. Some are benefits to owners, others to general contractors and on‐site managers, and others to the marketing and legal teams.

Many of these benefits are hard to quantify. The larger and longer the project, the greater the dollar value of a given benefit across that project. The value of some benefits will also depend on other processes implemented within the team, as well as the technical savvy of the team.

Oversight efficiency, by way of reduced site travel, is easier to analyze. Catching a problem early with a camera could have value to the project, and the same goes for team coordination and process improvement benefits. Benefits in customer relations can also be difficult to quantify. However it is easy to see that increased transparency with a customer can contribute to a leg up on a next project, resulting in a very high value to the general contractor. Marketing benefits and site safety and security have their own economics. Figure 2 delves into the costs of security cameras.

Assessing the Benefits
In completing a large construction project, builders, developers, owners, and managers must make hundreds of cost‐benefit assessments in determining which processes, tools, vendors, and materials to use. This same type of decision making applies to the use of construction cameras. Construction cameras have become more widely available, and are increasingly used. But what really is the cost benefit?

There are a few challenges in assessing the “benefit” component of our cost‐benefit analysis. The first is that these benefits accrue to a range of stakeholders in the building process. Some are benefits to the owners, others to the general contractors and on‐site managers, still others to the marketing or legal teams.

The second difficulty is that many of these benefits are hard to quantify. Clearly the larger and longer the project, the greater the “dollar value” is of a given benefit across that project. The value of benefits like “keeping the construction team coordinated” also will depend on other processes implemented within the team, and how effective those are, as well as how technically savvy the team is in order to be able to take advantage of real‐time site information without being distracted or burdened by the technology.

Oversight efficiency, by way of reduced site travel, is perhaps an easier one to analyze. As an example, let’s assume having site cameras reduces site travel by 2 person‐trips per month. On a 12 month project, that is 24 trips. At 4 hours per trip, that would be 96 hours saved. At a $40/hour burdened rate, that would be $3840 – more than the cost of a next‐generation construction site camera! Clearly catching a problem early or at all, could have a value to the project of many times this amount, and the same goes for team coordination and process improvement benefits.

Customer Relations

  • Transparency – part of owner/GC relationship – transparent project status information
  • Accountability – record of subcontractor activities, construction steps, for owner verification
  • Project Marketing – pre-marketing project to future buyers/renters
  • Public Relations – keeping stakeholders engaged in “public” or other high profile projects
  • Dispute Resolution – provides a simple data source to support dispute resolution, reducing costly legal processes

Project Management

  • Team Communications – sharing images/videos at team meetings to support communications and team coordination
  • Oversight efficiency – reducing site travel, more frequent site viewing
  • Oversight effectiveness – identifying problems sooner by having more eyes on the project in real-time
  • Schedule Management – ensuring delivery and key process milestones are met (e.g., concrete pours, materials deliveries).
  • Materials Management – oversight of materials deliveries and placement
  • Vendor Management – oversight of vendor activities, schedules
  • Quality Control – ensuring that processes are implemented correctly.
  • Process Improvement – using site cameras to provide “actuals” to compare against forecast within the BIM model.

Safety & Security

  • Site Safety – monitor processes for safe practices, document accidents to support improvements
  • Site Security – monitor sites after hours for theft, unauthorized access

Benefits in customer relations can also be hard to quantify, however it is easy to see that for a GC, increased transparency with a customer can contribute to a leg up on a next project, resulting in a very high value to the general contractor. What is the value of increasing your probability of win by 20% on that customer’s next project?

Marketing benefits, and site safety and security have their own economics. The savings of avoiding one stolen piece of equipment or stack of materials, can easily pay for several site cameras.

Many contractors will market their firms with pictures of finished projects. In reality, time‐lapse and in‐progress photos can provide a more compelling image of the services general contractors provide.

The Costs
With the first couple generations of construction site cameras, these costs could easily run to $30,000 or more per camera. These types of costs, combined with the harder to quantify benefits, have made the use of site cameras a harder choice in thepast. The result is that site cameras were used only on very large, high profile projects where a specific marketing budget justified the majority of the costs.

The Costs

  • Purchase or rental of the camera itself
  • Cellular data costs
  • Data storage and web/cloud service fees
  • Installation – electrical contractor
  • Setup and configuration – IT staff
  • Electrical service required at site for the camera
  • Internet service required at the site for the camera – installation and ongoing

Evolution of the Site Camera
Developments in recent years have changed the landscape for construction site cameras in several important ways that impact the costs and capabilities significantly. The most important of these include:

  • Solar powered – By eliminating the need for on‐site power, site cameras can be installed at any time, and in the most advantageous location. Installation costs are also lowered since no electrician is required for the install.
  • DIY Installation – next‐generation site cameras are designed for ease of use and self‐installation by end users. This means that the on‐site GC staff can easily install and configure the camera in a few minutes.
  • Wireless – Cellular and WiFi cameras also dramatically reduce the costs of site cameras by eliminating the need for wiring and simplifying and reducing installation costs. In the case of cellular systems, no on‐site internet connection is required.
  • Portable and small – Developments in microelectronics and battery technologies have enabled smaller cameras and solar power systems. This means that cameras/solar systems can be made portable, and able to mount on a simple 4×4 post or portable tripod. This reduces installation costs, and increases flexibility for mounting locations. Cameras also gain value by being portable from project to project.
  • Cloud connected – modern construction site cameras connect to a cloud service. This provides automated and secure archival of project data – no shuffling of SD cards or emailing around photos, or hassling with FTP servers. Cloud connected systems also provide access to the cameras in realtime from any smartphone, tablet, or PC without requiring Apps to be installed by the IT department.
  • Multi‐function cameras – Many of today’s leading site cameras can perform multiple functions including time‐lapse image collection, automatic time‐lapse videos, real‐time video streaming, video recording for security, motion detection, alerting, and more. This contributes to the cost/benefit equation by allowing a single camera to provide a larger number of the potential functions and benefits for a given project.
  • Increased use of smartphones/tablets – The increasing use of smartphones and tablets by project teams enables those teams to exploit site cameras by having real‐time access anywhere anytime. This allows more team members to benefit from the site cameras.
  • Low cost – Some of the newest generation of construction site cameras have achieved cost points that are a fraction of traditional systems. By creating highly integrated designs, incorporating the latest electronics and battery and communications technologies, companies have reduced the costs of site cameras by 50% or more over prior generation systems. These systems bring down the costs of the camera, the service costs, and installation costs.

The Equation Has Changed
The value that site cameras bring depends on the project. Site cameras benefit various stakeholders in a project, each in different ways. It is not easy to put an exact dollar figure on those values. However, it is clear that these value propositions are being increasingly recognized by leading construction teams across the country and the world. As there is more experience with using cameras in various ways on projects, these value equations will be increasingly easier to pinpoint. Our typical customers have not used site cameras in the past, and once they deploy them find they are using them multiple times per day and that they quickly become an indispensable project tool. We have talked a lot about the benefit side of the equation. But the other side is cost. One thing that is very clear, is that the newest generation of technology and products have reduced the costs of site cameras by over 50%. The benefits may be hard to quantify precisely, however the lower costs for next‐generation site cameras are presenting leading contractors and owners an easier decision to deploy site cameras on a wider range of projects.

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