A Digital Future for the Infrastructure Industry

November 9, 2017

The construction site of the future will be human-free. Robots will work in teams to build complex structures using dynamic new materials. Elements of the build will self-assemble. Drones flying overhead will scan the site constantly, inspecting the work and using the data collected to predict and solve problems before they arise, sending instructions to robotic cranes and diggers and automated builders with no need for human involvement. The role of the human overseer will be to remotely manage multiple projects simultaneously, accessing 3D and 4D visuals and data from the on-site machines, ensuring the build is proceeding to specification. The very few people accessing the site itself will wear robotically enhanced exoskeletons and will use neural-control technology to move and control machinery and other robots on site.

Today this vision may seem far-fetched. But consider the complex tasks performed by robots in a modern factory and it is not so hard to imagine such a future for the construction site. Indeed, in many areas of life the robots are not coming, they are already here.

From automated tills in supermarkets

From automated tills in supermarkets to autonomous vehicles on roads and voice-activated technologies in our homes, digital technologies are changing the way we work, shop, travel and relax, how we interact with the world around us and how we think about, commission and build our infrastructure. These technological changes bring significant opportunities for transformational change in the infrastructure industry. Balfour Beatty believes that the rise of digitisation and robotics in construction will bring about a huge increase in productivity in what is a very large but historically low-productivity sector.

The driver behind these changes

Infrastructure is a political and economic priority in many countries across the world. Increasingly complex projects are being commissioned to stimulate sluggish economies, upgrade old systems and cater for growing and changing populations. With high economic growth and fast-growing populations leading to significant urbanisation, the demand for new infrastructure is predicted to see massive growth in coming decades. Other new challenges: changing demographics; the increasing expectations of businesses, service users and the public; and the need to reduce carbon emissions and waste, all create a dynamic and testing environment for the industry and those commissioning new projects.

Adopting and mainstreaming digital and other new technologies, such as advances in robotics and artificial intelligence, will be a game-changer for the industry, speeding up the otherwise slow-and-steady modernisation of the sector, and providing answers to the challenges and opportunities we face. The benefits of digitisation are clear to companies such as Balfour Beatty, which is already using them across the business and the projects it is working on. Projects can be delivered more effectively and efficiently by harnessing the power of cloud computing and enhanced mobile technology.

Looking to the future and beyond the humanless construction site, there are a number of other predictions we can make, something which we do later in this paper. We are already using intelligent transportation systems (ITS) in the form of sensors embedded in traffic lights, car parks, roads and bridges to regulate traffic flows and smart buildings, with lighting which dims or switches itself off in areas where no one is moving. In the future, the Internet of Things will power smart buildings built with new, self-healing, energy generating or breathable materials, in smart cities which are able to model the future and adapt instantly to changing circumstances; construction will get faster, with the advent of 3D printing of bespoke components and even entire buildings, and 4D printing where self-transforming objects respond to changes in heat, sound or moisture levels to change shape; wearable technology will reduce worker injury and improve worker health while increasing productivity; and there will be a whole host of other new innovations which we must be ready for, both in terms of regulation and also in terms of skills.

The transformation that new technology can provide for the infrastructure of the future.

1. The industry will become increasingly focused on innovation and both contractors and customers will become less risk-averse.

2. The shape and offer of the infrastructure industry will change significantly, with new business models, products and services.

3. Infrastructure will move on from concrete and steel to include new materials which respond to their surroundings.

4. New jobs and industries will be created – and some will disappear, especially low or zero skill roles and those relying on repetition of tasks.

5. Thinking only about design and construction will become an outdated concept as infrastructure becomes multi-functional.

6. Robots will become more prevalent in construction.

7. Construction will get faster, using 3D and 4D printing, and self-transforming objects which self-assemble.

8. New, disruptive ideas will emerge, for making mass transit faster, safer and less damaging to the environment.

9. We will increasingly use wearable technology such as exoskeletons.

10. Direct neural control over devices and vehicles will be accessible to the industry.

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