In 1990, John Romkey connected the first ‘thing’ to the internet, a Sunbeam Radiant Control toaster. The seemingly odd experiment intended to prove the internet could be used to physically control an object, and it was successful. He used the internet to make toast. This fun hack was the first instance of what would eventually become a global trend.
The term ‘Internet of Things’ didn’t appear until about nine years after internet toast, and it has since become one of the biggest cross-industry buzzwords around. So what is it and how does it apply to construction? In short, IoT refers to the ability of internet-enabled devices to communicate independently.
People often explain IoT through the analogy of a refrigerator that can detect when you’re low on certain foods and automatically order them for you. A number of examples can be given, but the central benefit remains the same: IoT automates tasks that waste human hours. This is where the technology has huge implications for construction.
Imagine a jobsite where all your equipment, materials, and personnel are synced to a central server that monitors their activity in real time. Now think of the benefits of having all of those devices talk to each other. This interconnectivity is the future of construction sites and will transform the way firms look at managing their builds.
To better understand the technology, we’re going to take a look at four areas of innovation in IoT, the companies that show the most promise, and imagine what an IoT connected jobsite will look like in the next couple years.
IoT Innovation in Construction
Machine control is the first step toward the construction equivalent of self-driving cars.
How it works: Using a variety of measurement technologies, such as LIDAR and GNSS, machine control, also known as machine guided construction, automatically adjusts heavy equipment to perfectly grade, pave, drill, or pile large areas.
Who's using it: Heavy civil construction is probably the largest user of machine control at the moment, but as the technology develops it will find more integration into other projects.
IoT Advantages: Not only are the machines controlled with unprecedented precision, their progress, movements, and status are reported in real time. This connectivity can be used to plan and coordinate other build activities, increasing productivity and reducing delays.
By automatically tracking vehicles and equipment, fleet management can vastly improve productivity.
How it works: Fleet management simplifies equipment tracking by having every machine automatically report a number of factors to a central database, including location, speed, fuel consumption, and maintenance requirements.
Who's using it: This technology is probably one of the more widely adopted IoT solutions, most everyone with heavy equipment uses it in some form.
IoT Advantages: Managing even a small fleet of machinery is a headache that requires excruciating attention to detail. The more it can be automated, the less chance there is for error and the easier you can identify waste. It also enhances safety by keeping an eye on the driving of your operators.
Innovators: ES Track
Site monitoring refers to using an array of sensors to constantly record jobsite conditions.
How it works: To make use of site monitoring, general contractors must purchase sensors and place them on their site. Once the sensors are in place, they continually collect, report, and analyze data for whatever site condition they are designed to measure.
Who's using it: Site monitoring sensors are primarily used to monitor enclosed areas in vertical construction, though concrete sensors are increasingly common in horizontal construction.
IoT Advantages: A site will never be fully IoT enabled without an array of sensors measuring inputs like temperature, humidity, noise, and vibration. Once these are in place, construction firms will be able to prevent accidents and violations by continually monitoring their sites for safety and compliance.
Innovators: Pillar Technologies
Wearable tech covers a number of innovations, but one of the biggest areas it's changing is safety.
How it works: Much like the name implies, wearable tech is a device that you wear on your person. These include smart watches, AR goggles, smart helmets, and a range of other innovations. These device monitor personal data and report it wirelessly.
Who's using it: Many construction workers being their own personal wearable tech to the field. In addition, many tech-forward firms have adopted wearables for AR and for safety.
IoT Advantages: Wearable tech probably has the widest range of benefits, but from a purely IoT perspective its biggest benefits come from labour tracking and safety. Wearables can give you an automatic headcount, show you who is working where, mark hazards, and send realtime safety alerts site wide.
The Hottest Construction IoT Companies
Area of Innovation: Machine Control
Product Description: Trimble offers a full suite of both hardware and software to power machine control for paving, grading, drilling, and piling operations.
What sets them apart: Trimble is a trusted brand that has a 20+ year track record of consistently setting the bar for innovation in heavy machinery.
Where to learn more: Check out their website for full details on all their product offerings.
Area of Innovation: Fleet Management
Product Description: ES Track offers a mixed fleet management solution, meaning all your equipment can be tracked on one dashboard.
What sets them apart: ES Track is a tech solution built by general contractors. They know the pain points of managing a wide variety of equipment, and have developed a unique solution based on their experience.
Where to learn more: Their website, ESTrack.com offers a full breakdown of the software and hardware.
Area of Innovation: Site Monitoring
Product Description: Pillar manufactures smart sensors that measure temperature, humidity, pressure, dust, VOCs, and noise.
What sets them apart: Most sensors measure one thing. Pillar offers an all-in-one solution to monitor multiple site conditions.
Where to learn more: Pillar.tech provides and in-depth look at both their hardware and software.
Area of Innovation: Wearables
Product Description: Spot-r is a small wearable device designed to monitor employee safety through a proprietary mesh network solution.
What sets them apart: Spot-r is a simple to deploy solution that significantly increases safety. It requires no training for employees, beyond the instructions of clip it on and remember to press the button if you see a safety hazard.
Where to learn more: Triaxtec.com has a number of videos and product descriptions to get you started.
What does the future of IoT in construction look like?
Thanks to the Internet of Things, the construction site of the future will never have to deal with uncertainty. When every tool, machine, material, device, and person automatically reports to a central hub, you’ll have unprecedented insight into the status of your build. However, the usefulness of this insight will be limited by the software tracking it. The exciting stuff will happen when IoT combines with software powered by AI and machine learning.
The most advanced general contractors will use software that takes all their inputs, analyzes them, and outputs precise project status. They will know exactly the materials used, the completion percentage of their project, the areas that are behind schedule, the cause of delays, and the conditions on their site. Not only will there be 24/7 access to this information in real time, the software will proactively take steps to resolve issues without human intervention.
Once every device on a site is automatically communicating, the right software will be able to direct people, machinery, and materials to prevent delays caused by late deliveries, broken equipment, and human error. It will eliminate the headache of documenting progress and ensure that everyone always stays on the same page.
It may see like a far off dream, but this technology is progressing rapidly. Within the next 3-5 years, the most progressive firms will be well on their way to realizing this future. When they do, they will see significant advances in productivity, efficiency, and spending that will put them miles beyond the firms that don't adopt the tech.
Unearth has big plans to pave the way for construction to take advantage of IoT and machine learning. Subscribe to our blog to stay up-to-date with our latest innovations as well as other breaking developments in construction technology and management.