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The autonomous site of the future is closer than we realize; the time to embrace it is now

By Troy Dahlin

The idea of an autonomous jobsite has been a must-discussed — and almost theoretical — concept for years. But the recent proliferation of technology on the jobsite coupled with other market pressures has put the modern jobsite on the cusp of full autonomy.

Large parts of manufacturing operations are automated for increasingly specified and repetitive tasks. This contrasts with the average construction site, where working conditions change daily, but the current technology available is helping to change that.

While some industries, such as mining, have gravitated toward the autonomous jobsite more quickly, automation is no longer limited to a hypothetical possibility. And this shift toward a fully autonomous jobsite is happening at near breakneck speed.

Intelligence and the collection of data are the foundation for a fully autonomous worksite. As the job progresses, the data that workers collect makes the jobsite a high-performing and intelligent one and is crucial to ensuring jobs are completed as designed.

However, an autonomous, connected ecosystem in construction cannot focus solely on productivity and efficiency gains. Autonomous operations must be pressure-checked for the safety of personnel and collision risks and the longer-term safety of a project’s construction.

As industries shift into massively adopting new technologies, we often see a reconfiguration of the value chain, the required talent and the location of resources. It is also possible that operators will increasingly interact with autonomous machines, allowing for the completion of more complex work.

But more than anything, the technology helping usher in the autonomous worksite is also helping make a safer jobsite a reality.


Reduce the risk of human error

When it comes to a more autonomous jobsite, there are benefits for everyone involved.

Those on the civil side often look at automation as an antidote to help them overcome the labor shortage and rising material costs. Automation can help coordinate people, products and precious resources and help increase productivity on the jobsite.

But an equally significant— or perhaps a more significant — benefit is the ability of automation to exponentially reduce the likelihood of human error.

Consider as a real-life application the collection and reporting of survey data. Traditionally, this has been a cumbersome process, and information was either hand-written or collected via cell phone photos.

The collected data was then manually entered into the software in use. New, automated solutions have long been needed by the industry, and the use of digital as-builts in the construction inspection process has endless potential to enhance safety and quality and save time and money.

The construction inspection process is a necessary part of quality control validation and contract management. So, why not make it a more streamlined process?


Eliminate the silos

Technology enables field inspectors to complete their daily work reports (DWR) faster and more accurately. By employing rovers and other automated tools to collect data, inspectors automatically associate that information with survey data collected during an inspection.

Additionally, inspectors don’t need to verify the data another surveyor collects, as they have confidence knowing it is accurate.

The result is information that is no longer left in silos. Instead, it is integrated seamlessly, reducing the potential risk of human error when data is collected and entered into a system manually.


The biggest hurdle is the user

At the moment, the biggest hurdle in achieving a fully autonomous workplace may be the user. Because so much of the construction process has traditionally been paper-intensive, it’s been a slow transition to the wider use of technology — perhaps even more so than other industries.

In part, that’s because some legacy operators have been resistant to embrace new technology. But this will change as the industry evolves and a new generation of workers join the workforce.

But technology civil engineering competencies are here: robots, machinery and equipment working hand in hand with humans. Easy-to-use applications such as automating an excavator or fully autonomous mobile reality capture are helping workers to embrace technology and the autonomous revolution it enables.


Automation offers needed peace of mind

The latest issue of The Civil Quarterly (TCQ) from Dodge Data & Analytics, based on a quarterly survey of civil contractors, engineers and owners, reveals a wide range of reality capture tools employed on civil jobsites.

Even before the pandemic, the adoption and deployment of technology onsite has been growing for many contractors. The wider use of onsite technology is significant because of its positive impact on many elements of the jobsite, from productivity to safety.

While drones, aerial mapping and digital cameras are widespread and capture the headlines, it’s the use of emerging autonomous tools that will help bring about the autonomous jobsite and make projects safer. Tools like laser scanners and GPS rovers see increased use for gathering data, making calculations, verifying quality control, and documenting progress.

Not surprisingly, these numerous applications lead to some critical project benefits. More than half of those who use these reality capture tools reported improved ability to track work progress, manage schedules and budget, and improve the quality of their projects.

The autonomous jobsite gives additional peace of mind for civil engineers. Because when they know the jobsite is automated, they know the likelihood of human error is diminished.

Autonomy enables seamless interaction between what civil engineers, planners, schedulers and contractors plan to do in an office environment and what gets done on the job site.


It’s all about confidence

What is seemingly lost so often in the conversation is the practical application of technology.

It’s not about rolling out technology because the industry can do so. Instead, it should be about deploying technology that makes jobs easier and safer.

Intelligence and real-time data capture have their tentacles in nearly every aspect of the construction — from estimating and bidding to the construction itself to verification and completion. Feeding this intel to the job site to ensure it is completed according to plan and differentiates between what was planned and real world landscape.

There is a high cost to errors and accidents, from the dollar cost to fix a mishap to the lost time to the potential for loss of life. We have the ability to have endless information at our fingertips; we should use it to make the world as safe of a place as possible.

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