The Internet of Things Brings More Intelligence to the Job Site

Sam Lamonica, VP and CIO, Rosendin Electric
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Technology is powering some exciting new possibilities in construction such as mobile access to building diagrams and bills of materials, remote workforce management, improving on-the-job safety, and every new piece of technology deployed on the job site has a new IP address. Welcome to the world of the Internet of Things (IoT). Any device with an IP address can be remotely monitored and even managed as part of the enterprise, which is a blessing as well as a curse for CIOs.

The blessing is the additional data and control that IoT provides. We now have the potential to access real-time data from devices on the job site for greater efficiency and safety. The curse is that with IoT, we also have individual sensors generating more than 1 terabyte of data daily; data that needs to be prioritized, secured, curated, and stored. Since the IT budgets for construction operations are notoriously low, the challenge becomes how to make the most of IoT in the field with limited resources.

As we wrestle with the impact of IoT in construction, we are considering a few innovations:

Real-time Safety Monitoring

Rosendin Electric has rigorous protocols and procedures to ensure that every worker is safe on the job site, and as a result, we have an excellent safety record. IoT offers new possibilities in construction safety, especially with the evolution of wearable devices.

  ​We now have the potential to access real-time data from devices on the job site for greater efficiency and safety  

IoT can be used to monitor safety masks, helmets, and vests providing real-time heart rate and respiration readings. A simple wrist band can monitor pulse, skin temperature, and other vital signs to alert the user and management to potential health hazards, such as toxic chemicals or gases. Monitoring could even be tracked against workers’ unique health conditions.

Construction innovators are considering new devices that will promote safety and include IoT. For example, a lightweight steel exoskeleton could handle heavy lifting or for specific applications such as drilling. As with any device, these exoskeletons would be equipped with sensors that not only monitor unit’s performance, but also the condition of the operator.

Drones on the Job

IoT is also enabling new types of technology tools. Drones, for example, are becoming an increasingly useful tool on the job site since they can provide a bird’s eye view of construction. They also are being used for specific applications, such as inspecting hard-to-access locations. For example, drones can see the exterior of a high-rise where it is too dangerous for human inspectors.

However, drones need to be monitored and managed. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is requiring registrations of drones, which also ignites the need for skilled operators and safety measures. If a drone fails and falls out of the sky or is involved in an accident, all parties involved, including the contractor, could be held liable.

For these new types of tools, IoT can be invaluable since they provide operational data to real-time functions, alerting an operator to an impending failure, and capturing operational details in the event of an accident; think of a remote “black box” for drones.

The Challenges of IoT for Construction

While IoT offers tremendous potential in the construction industry, there are  number of factors that limit their use in the field.

The most obvious issue is data management. If each IoT device generates 1 terabyte of data daily, what happens when you multiply that by 50 devices? The amount of IoT data generated is beyond the capacity of most networks. Even if you could handle the data volume, you would still need to prioritize the incoming data for real-time response. For example, if IoT is part of a larger safety strategy, then you have to process worker health readings in real time. What about data management issues–how do you know when a worker removes a helmet or safety vest as a false positive rather than a health issue?

We also run into the problem of maintaining an on-site network to handle the data. For a new building, the construction crew will have to set up a wireless network to accommodate data traffic, including sufficient bandwidth to handle the volume of data traffic. We need to account for special situations. The steel in a high-rise building, for example, can block wireless data traffic. What about a remote site with no access to telecommunications access such as installing a desert solar array? IoT is going to require on-site IT support, which translates to more equipment and personnel.

In the end, we have to weigh the cost of IoT support against return. IT budgets for construction companies are never big and adding the staff and infrastructure needed to support IoT in the field is cost-prohibitive without proof of ROI. The efficiencies and analytics that come from IoT may pay for themselves in time, but it will take some construction pioneers serving as early adopters to prove IoT’s value for construction. 

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