Technology like the Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G is transforming the way the construction industry does business, allowing companies to become faster, smarter, safer, and more efficient.
New Construction Technology
The industry has entered a new phase of digitalization through IoT and other enabling technologies. IoT devices are no longer just primary sensors, but they are evolving into advanced computers, which are capable of new and demanding applications in construction projects such as remote operation, supply replenishment, construction tools, equipment tracking, equipment servicing, repair, remote usage monitoring, augmented reality (AR), building information modeling (BIM), predictive maintenance, progress monitoring, construction safety, and quality monitoring. Clearly, there’s a growing need for bandwidth. Given that the adoption of IoT in the industry is projected to keep on rising, the future success of deployments will rely on innovations in connectivity, like 5G.
Early adopters in the industry are already using IoT solutions, albeit in a fragmented approach. There’s no developed ecosystem for all-round integrated business decision support, mainly due to a lack of fast, reliable and robust connectivity options that can handle communication from distributed locations. Usually, construction sites are in remote areas, and their headquarters are located in cities. Constant communication is required between the various stakeholders within the site, and from the site office to home-office and as well as offices of other partners involved in the projects. Currently, it’s challenging to find a network that’s cost-efficient, feature-rich, and capable of multiservice.
One of the biggest innovations within 5G is support for IoT use in construction in all its forms: providing high-speed data access, addressing mission criticality, and making it possible to connect constrained devices. In construction, project delivery depends on efficient data collection, capture and analysis/evaluation – all of which require reliable connectivity. 5G offers the possibility of real-time data processing, so decisions can be made almost instantly and issues rectified quickly.
The most popular key differentiator of 5G is bandwidth, i.e., data transfer rates of up to 10Gbps. However, according to Ericsson, there are about three different ways to think about IoT in a 5G-enabled world.
- Broadband IoT: Enables high volume and high-speed data transfer.
- Critical IoT: For mission-critical applications that rely on large bandwidths.
- Massive IoT: To connect a large number of devices.
Massive connectivity targets low complexity narrow-bandwidth devices that infrequently send or receive small volumes of data, like concrete maturity monitoring sensors, GPS and RFID tags. The devices can be in challenging radio conditions, like enclosures, and therefore require coverage extension capabilities and usually battery power. Additionally, the number of “things” involved in an IoT network is large, so it’s much different from a computer network, as the number of nodes increases the complexity of the network.
Broadband connectivity enables large volumes of data transfer, extreme data rates and low latencies for devices with significantly larger bandwidths than massive IoT devices. Broadband IoT connectivity is also capable of enhancing signal coverage per base station and extending device battery life if requirements on data rate and latency are not stringent. Broadband IoT is vital for the majority of the mobile equipment Applications that require high data rates and low latency, such as construction equipment telematics, fleet management, sensor sharing, and basic safety.
Mission-critical connectivity enables super-low latency communication. It aims to deliver messages with strictly bounded low latencies, even in heavily loaded cellular networks. In IoT ecosystems, the sensors, actuators and other gadgets are dependent on the responsiveness of the system or network to work effectively. This validates that high latency means delayed responsiveness, and with that comes the inability of things to function to their full capacity. Some IoT systems are designed to respond in case of emergencies, and delayed responsiveness can result in loss of life or property, for example, in the case of autonomous vehicles.
Possible 5G Applications in Construction
Real-time automation: Real-time automation is one of the most popular segments of construction applications. It consists of autonomous applications like robotic masons, welders, and cranes that leverage data from sensors in real-time to trigger specific actions. It’s often used in mission-critical applications, where latency, availability, reliability, and security are of key importance.
Given that construction sites are complex and constantly evolving environments, teams can rely on 5G to understand activities on worksites in real-time and to perform remote or autonomous construction operations. Combined with high communication speeds, this will give those working in construction almost instantaneous access to data-intensive edge and cloud applications, enabling multiple users to interact with each other in real-time, and remotely.
While reliability and trust are key considerations in all IoT applications, they’re of utmost importance in mission-critical applications such as the predictability of data delivery to robots.
Monitoring, tracking, and surveillance: Self-driving vehicles are gaining prominence at construction sites, combined with data collected and fused from a vast array of sensors, including concrete maturity, structural health, waste management, location, weather, GPS and IP cameras. With the advent of 5G, this information will become indispensable as companies and cities overlay other technologies, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, onto real-time data outputs and revolutionize how to work safely and efficiently.
5G will be crucial in monitoring the health, location, status, and specifications of assets of all kinds, including the following:
- Site machinery to ensure operational ability, availability, remote or autonomous construction operations.
- Site components to ensure coordination with the project, enabling real-time reactions to changes and updates.
- Improved safety. With 5G, sensors can more effectively be deployed to improve safety by tracking individuals’ safety compliance through smart vests, helmets, and shoes.
Supply chain optimization: The construction job site has a lot of repetitive activities, and hunting for materials is a constant challenge. Autonomous vehicles, RFIDs, computer vision, BLE (Bluetooth low energy), or other digital tools can be used to help address such issues. If materials can arrive on demand, it will greatly improve productivity.
Real-time information on the order status of materials or various components manufactured offsite is important to ensure a project is running on time. This will benefit project managers, principal construction contractors, and tradespeople.
Multi-trade prefabrication, including utilization of cyber-physical assistance systems, advanced building information modeling (BIM) and design-to-fabrication technologies has a direct impact on improving quality and reducing time spent at the worksite. This requires real-time collaboration, and 5G’s broadband IoT is a possible solution.
Enhanced video services: In terms of video capture, 5G will also help organizations inexpensively deploy technology to quickly capture, organize and analyze massive volumes of video information. This reduces the need for some teams to even visit the construction site. Further, this kind of real-time, rich, visual information can provide reassurance to the owner as well as an on-demand transparent view of the project at any particular moment in time.
Drones are already being employed to take 4K video footage, and 5G will enable real-time video sharing and analytics. Construction status and reporting can now rely on the use of computer visualization to understand the work and automatically update progress on the project. Computers can take care of 80 percent of field engineers’ repetitive work. This would free the knowledge workers to resolve problems as opposed to physically verifying work status.
Another example is the ability to deploy subject matter experts directly to the workplace through augmented and mixed reality, regardless of physical location. With a BIM model and 5G capability, it’s possible to have it instantly available and enable rich video content to provide an even greater level of visualization on the job site or about the site.
Hazard and maintenance sensing: Visual data can help us identify hazards instantly and proactively intervene to reduce accidents and injuries. Videos rather than static images can help streamline inspections, punch lists, audits, safety audits, as-builts, and even compliance. 5G enables visual data. Images make us reactive. In a proactive scenario, data capture is automated, continues through various sources, and is analyzed in real-time. AI and machine learning become your predictive analytical engine that reports potential areas of risk before issues arise.
Fostering collaboration: We’re seeing an increasing number of joint ventures as construction projects become complex. Sharing knowledge is now important, not just internally but with peers. Often, we are trying to solve the same problems with the same set of resources (design, vendors, and trade partners). 5G makes this process much easier.
Caveats Regarding 5G in Construction
Just like any other new construction technology, 5G has to be adopted strategically. There are several caveats that companies need to consider, such as the following:
Standardization: While 5G will help to increase collection, capture, and analysis of data, there are many organizations and projects today that don’t have a strategy around the standardization of project delivery. This can reduce the potential benefits of 5G but also impact the safety, quality, completion time and budget of a project.
Security: Given the massive number of connected devices enabled by 5G, there’s an increased need for rigor around updating and following security standards.
To realize the full potential of 5G, construction businesses need a tailored implementation strategy. As a general approach, the following steps may prove useful:
- Clearly define the problems you want to solve and identify value creation drivers.
- Make sure you are solving a problem that matters, i.e., one that is supported by a compelling ROI.
- Choose a credible partner to help you decide on the ecosystem, channel model, and business model to pursue.
- Build internal capabilities to deploy the solution and to secure technical enablers.
- Implement the solution and allow its capabilities to evolve. Continuously improve as you experiment and learn until the solution can be deployed to scale.
Although 5G is still in its early days of deployment, fast progress is being made in the development and testing of the technologies, and the standardization process is expected to be completed in 2020 with 3GPP release 16.
When it comes to IoT, 5G’s capabilities open up a seemingly infinite number of new Applications. Data collected at the edge can be understood and acted on in near real-time. High bandwidth and low-latency times ensure more data than ever can be quickly and easily collected and analyzed, overlaying increased intelligence into every device at the edge. The integration of 5G and IoT can help AEC organizations to improve productivity, safety, and compliance.
Written by Farai Mazhandu