March 12, 2018 by Jacob Stoller
One of the most palpable signs of the digital area is the growing frequency of requests to “rate your experience” at venues you happened to pass. The availability of information indicating where you are, or, to be precise, where your phone is located, is transforming the retail goods and services industries. Although the trend in construction isn’t as obvious, the industry is seeing an explosion in geo-aware technology that has significant implications for the future.
“Construction hasn’t been known for being leading edge,” says Thomas Strong, Managing Director of Virtual Construction Services at Toronto-based EllisDon, “and in the past we’d see maybe 10 software start-ups in a given year. But in the past year or so, we’ve probably had 100 start-ups knocking on our door.”
Dallas-based Project Atlas, for example, has recently released an app that allows construction personnel to view plans and site maps on their phones and, like Google Maps, see exactly where they are in that picture. The company is currently working on integrating their software with the most common construction software tools. The advantages of this kind of capability speak for themselves.
Connecting a computer with geographic coordinates is, of course, nothing new. Global Positioning System (GPS), the satellite-based location tracking system set up by the U.S. Government, dates back to the ‘70s. What’s changed is that data capture has gotten cheaper and more powerful, resulting in the collection of enormous amounts of geographically referenced data.
As a case in point, large construction firms are developing sizeable GIS (Geographic Information System) databases that help them build virtual models, verify the location of an underground pipe, or monitor and regulate activities according to geographic considerations.
One of the most basic applications of geographic information is called geo-fencing, in which a particular zone or jobsite is identified by geographic coordinates. By tracking the location of cell phones and other devices, a company can monitor presence in a particular zone.
“We can geo-fence labour on a jobsite, so we can understand where and how labour is being allocated, for all sorts of different reasons, including safety,” says Strong. On the safety side, for example, a company could geo-fence a blasting area, and the safety office could monitor that zone in real time to ensure that no employee is at risk.
Geo-fencing is also used to manage assets more efficiently. Equipping vehicles with beacons that report their location in real time has become a central aspect of fleet management. According to Sonny Shem, Manager of Virtual Design and Construction at Edmonton-based PCL, more and more equipment will be “smart and location aware” as beacons become cheaper and more portable.
On the leading edge, geographic information is being used to pilot drones which collect video information for various purposes, such as a safety inspections, progress reports on jobsites, or the creation of detailed photographic site maps. Recent off-the-shelf software products like Pix4d, used to create aerial maps, are making this technology affordable for more and more firms.
Geographic sensing via satellite or cell tower has limitations, and the key to accuracy is combining technologies. Google Maps, for example, improves on cellular tower accuracy by factoring in a phone’s proximity to known wi-fi networks. Similarly, what a superintendent or worker “sees” through a phone’s camera can be compared with a stored image that is geographically referenced, allowing a precise determination of the device’s location, either in real space or on a particular drawing or plan.
The comparison of sensed and stored information enables the incorporation of geographically-referenced photographic information in virtual BIM-based models. It will also be one of the keys to the safe operation of self-driving vehicles, which will constantly be collecting massive amounts of video information.
The ubiquity of this kind of data will have interesting implications for construction. If a self-driving vehicle senses a pothole in the road, it will be able to scan, record, and send that information to a city works department. When that same car passes a construction environment, any changes can be recorded. And as such data becomes more accessible, Shem suggests, it may soon be possible to sit in front of a computer screen and, using a scroll bar, travel into the past and watch how his home city of Edmonton has evolved.