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Construction Technology 2021 Midyear Review

  • Advanced construction technology strives to help people experience spaces while keeping a safe distance.
  • Robots, drones, and smart wearables for construction sites continue to evolve.
  • Sustainability—whether through advanced materials, electric equipment, or circular business models—remains a priority.

As 2021 marches on, what started as a somewhat bleak year has turned more hopeful—more economies are opening, anxieties are starting to ease, and more construction sites are firing back up.

Nevertheless, when it comes to construction technology in 2021, there’s increasing pressure to create ways for people to experience and understand spaces virtually to keep safe distances. Sharing data more intuitively and intimately also top the “want” list for innovation. So for this list of trends to watch in 2021, it is clear that builders are also looking for creative ways to keep people safe under current conditions, removing them from physical sites while accelerating their ability to work together.

1. Pocket LIDAR

LIDAR is the most precise, efficient way to verify that what has been built on a construction site matches the digital BIM (Building Information Modeling) model. Existing laser-scanning hardware is bulky and awkward, and most are uni-taskers. But that’s changing, led by two giants of consumer technology: Apple and Google.

construction technology 2021 iphone 12 pro lidar
The Apple iPhone 12 Pro has LIDAR technology built into the device. Courtesy of Apple.

The Apple iPhone 12 Pro and the newest Apple iPad Pro come with LIDAR scanners, which use nanosecond-long laser pulses to measure the distance from objects. This data can be aggregated to create 3D maps of incredible depth and complexity.

Similarly, Google is working on a radar-based system that operates as an advanced motion detector. For consumer smartphones, LIDAR systems will primarily boost augmented-reality applications such as Apple’s ARkit, integrating synthesized environments and characters onto existing ones. That can be a great help on construction sites, too, for transposing BIM models onto the site, flying the finished building’s circulation routes, or detecting use patterns before the drywall cures.

Bringing pocket-size LIDAR capabilities onto construction sites is an ideal way to manage the extreme dynamism of these places. As materials and personnel flow across sites, LIDAR can document each stage with unparalleled precision in near real time. It can also be used to maintain and repair large infrastructure, especially across places that are too vast—such as power grids—for a pair of human eyes and a CCTV channel.

Indoors, LIDAR can detect small cracks or imperfections in walls that could become safety risks. Construction safety also benefits from more detailed, up-to-date circulation guidance and a reduced need for in-person inspections of dangerous places. Apple is currently investigating head-mounted LIDAR sensors, ideal for workers who need to go hands-free while using tools or driving heavy machinery.

2. Charging Up the Construction Site

As batteries get bigger, going electric on construction sites means cleaner, more sustainable operation. Heavy electric construction equipment is following the rechargeable trend. Excavators, cranes, drilling rigs, and heavy trucks are becoming just as carbon-neutral and efficient as their power source—which could be solar, wind, or geothermal.

Driven by plummeting battery costs, Gammons Construction has deployed shipping-container-size Enertainer lithium-ion batteries, creating construction sites free of diesel fumes. Beyond the smaller carbon footprint, these units (which can be purpose-built or retrofits of diesel engines) are more dependable and require less maintenance. The decrease in noise and pollution also allows construction to go on longer in residential areas.

Many of these units still require power cords, but that could also become a thing of the past. San Francisco–based startup and Autodesk Technology Centers resident PHION Technologies has developed a prototype over-the-air wireless power and data system that can reach nearly a dozen feet to recharge devices, no power cords or charging pads required. The ultimate goal is scalable power across a 30-foot radius that also delivers position-tracking functionality for construction robots and aids wireless network connectivity.

A ZEITdice time-lapse camera mounted on a tree. Courtesy of ZEITdice.

3. Eyes on (or in) the Site From Anywhere

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a crash course in remote collaboration for everyone. But even before the pandemic struck, some companies had been researching how construction software and hardware can better facilitate collaboration over distance.

Autodesk Technology Center resident ZEITdice, from Canada, takes a novel approach to remote collaboration using high-definition, time-lapse cameras instead of digital models. By sorting through endless hours of footage of construction sites, ZEITdice uses machine learning to recognize patterns and anomalies, generating reports on efficiency and safety improvements and providing thermal and infrared imaging.

4. XR for Construction Applications

XR—the umbrella term for virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR)—continues to make waves in the construction industry, from facilitating site simulations to workplace VR training.

Resolve allows designers and builders to inspect BIM models at different scales, looming over them like a giant or at ground-level, going floor-by-floor. Using the Oculus Quest wireless headset and operable with Autodesk BIM 360, Resolve translates complex models into immersive VR environments, makes speech-to-text annotations, and lets colorful avatars measure and sketch within virtual models.

construction technology 2021
Resolve translates BIM models into immersive virtual-reality environments, where designers and builders can inspect projects in real time. Courtesy of Resolve.

The hardware bringing this sort of data into the field is hands-free and intuitive to operate. Vuzix’s smart glasses contain a GPS sensor, 3-axis accelerometer, a speaker, a microphone, and a 4K video camera for seamless audio and visual communication. And speaking of smart glasses, remember Google Glass? The eyeglass-mounted system never caught on as a consumer product but has quietly proved itself indispensable in manufacturing applications and is finding a place as enterprise hardware on construction sites.

For those wanting to get their hands involved, Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 is responsive to touch and motion, allowing users to manipulate virtual images with a swipe or a wave.

5. Hardhat Drones

The first generation of drones for construction sites were there to look, not to touch. Their photogrammetry applications saved time and money—and boosted jobsite efficiency and safety. The new generation of aerial drones are getting their landing struts dirty, programmed to take the most dangerous or difficult jobs out of human hands.

Emerging from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Autodesk Technology Centers resident Skymul is developing a drone system that can tie rebar intersections, one of most tedious and physically taxing jobs on a construction site. It uses machine learning to map rebar connections autonomously. Likewise, Terra Drone has been experimenting with using drones to drop seismic sensors across vast mountainous terrain.

And UAV giant DJI just released a new agricultural drone with powerful spraying capabilities that could be applicable to construction sites. The DJI AGRAS T20 has a sprayer payload tank that can carry up to 44 pounds with nozzles that project 23 feet. Its omnidirectional radar can track objects from all horizontal directions, and its software and hardware monitors crop health and generates variable treatment procedures. For orchards, it can generate routes simply by examining the shape of trees. This weighty payload capacity could also work for construction sites, as drones are called on to apply paint or adhesives, to water a green roof, or other uses.

construction technology 2021 DJI drone spraying
The DJI AGRAS T20 has the ability to spray up to 23 feet. Courtesy of DJI.

6. Contact Tracing for Safety and Efficiency

The COVID-19 crisis has made it clear that contact tracing across a construction site is critical for workers’ health and safety. Construction sites are heavily trafficked, complex, and constantly changing—an ideal place for an airborne contagion to spread.

Several companies are focusing on how to track health and circulation data across sites to keep people safe while they build. The WakeCap system uses helmet-mounted units that communicate with a receiver, using signal strength as a proxy for distance, and thus location, on a site. These units can be powerful aids for site workflow and social distancing, tracking circulation choke points and mapping the most accessible locations for toolsheds and break rooms.

Whereas WakeCap has prized ease of use, the wearable-sensor company WorkerSense has opted for more complexity. It offers helmet-mounted sensors that detect temperature, humidity, light levels, and motion across nine axes. Its software platforms monitor crew locations, manpower composition data, cost codes, personal protective equipment usage, certification enforcement, incident logs, and environmental conditions. Nokia is developing automated thermal-detection systems accurate to within 0.3 degrees Celsius.

7. Construction-Site Robots

The proven ideas behind machine-controlled equipment—graders, loaders, backhoes, and so on—have been expanded to focus on autonomous control and robotic technology.

Researchers at Purdue Polytechnic Institute’s Automation and Intelligent Construction (AutoIC) Lab have created a robotic construction system that uses computer-vision sensing technology. With just one robotic end effector, which can both place and fasten objects, the system can sense building elements and match them to BIM data.

“By basing the sensing for our robotic arm around computer vision technology, rather than more limited-scope and expensive sensing systems, we have the capability to complete many sensing tasks with a single affordable sensor,” said Jiansong Zhang, an assistant professor of construction management technology in the Purdue Polytechnic Institute.

construction technology 2017 Built Robotics’ autonomous track loader
Built Robotics’ autonomous track loader uses LIDAR, GPS, and digital files to guide itself around construction sites. Courtesy of Built Robotics.

Several other robotic applications are already deployed on construction sites. Examples include SAM (Semi-Automated Mason), the bricklaying robot that works alongside human masons to increase productivity and reduce physical strain on workers. And then there’s Built Robotics’ autonomous track loader, which uses LIDAR, GPS, and digital files to guide itself around construction sites, cutting and filling as needed.

Other construction robots in use include trucks, dump trucks, and a self-driving, 320-ton “mega machine.” A fleet of these behemoths has been deployed by Australian company Rio Tinto for its mining operations—controlled from the company’s Perth headquarters, a thousand miles from the site.

 8. Greener Asphalt

Beginning in the 1960s, the construction industry began successfully using recycled rubber—mainly from used car tires—as an asphalt admixture that improved quality, lowered material costs, and reduced landfill waste. In recent years, that practice has extended to using recycled bottles and other single-use plastics in asphalt.

construction technology 2017 building bike paths out of recycled LEGO-like plastic blocks
The city of Rotterdam is building bike paths out of recycled, LEGO-like, plastic blocks that snap together. Courtesy of PlasticRoad.

In fact, Rotterdam has even proposed building a new bike path entirely out of recycled, Lego-like, plastic blocks that snap together. And plastic and rubber are not the only recycled materials being mixed into asphalt: Researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, have shown that adding cigarette butts can improve roadway quality while safely containing heavy metals; and in Sydney, recycled printer toner is incorporated into an environmentally friendly asphalt mix.

9. Self-Healing Concrete

Concrete is the world’s most used construction material. What if all that concrete could fix itself when cracks form? It might sound crazy, but the Romans used self-healing concrete more than two millennia ago, and modern-day scientists are finding ways to do the same. One approach relies on limestone-producing bacteria. And materials scientists at Rutgers University are using a limestone-producing fungus called Trichoderma reesei as a concrete admixture that will fix fine cracks as they form.

Self-healing concrete incorporates biological elements that repair cracks. Courtesy of TU Delft.
Healing bacteria survive up to 200 years in concrete. Courtesy of TU Delft.
Concrete automatically seals cracks caused by tension. Courtesy of TU Delft.

10. Circular Business Models

More a philosophy than a technology, circular business models, which consider the entire lifecycle of a project, continue to gain traction. Global consulting firm Roland Berger posits that circular business models in construction will create a global market worth more than 600 billion euros by 2025.

On the bleeding edge of this has been European construction group Royal BAM. Its Circl pilot project is a large pavilion intended for deconstruction from the outset. The idea is that modular building techniques and careful tracking of resources should make it possible to reuse virtually all of Circl in other buildings.

“Some of the materials used should actually increase in value,” said Nitesh Magdani, BAM’s group director of sustainability. “In effect, we’re trying to create ways to lease materials so that this future value can be captured.” To that end, BAM is developing an online marketplace to enable 100% reuse, as well as new contracting methods that will better account for reuse.

This article has been updated; it originally published in January 2021. Additional reporting by Angus W. Stocking, L.S.