Smart Infrastructure Making an Impact on Construction Decision Making

Technology is set to transform the way infrastructure is built in the future. To understand how infrastructure is going to change in the next several years, construction professionals need to recognize what areas encompass infrastructure in America.

By definition of our National Infrastructure Plan, we need to build, maintain, improve and protect 16 key areas that are considered critical to America. These include:

  • Chemical
  • Commercial facilities
  • Communications
  • Critical manufacturing
  • Dams
  • Defense industrial base
  • Emergency services
  • Energy
  • Financial services
  • Food and agriculture
  • Government facilities
  • Healthcare and public health
  • Information technology
  • Nuclear reactors, materials, and waste
  • Transportation systems
  • Water and wastewater systems

All of these areas have one key thing in common—they are all things that the construction industry is expected to both build and maintain.

Intelligent Infrastructure

“In a word, ‘futurizing’ this infrastructure means giving it the capability of intelligence,” explains Jim Kissane, a semi-retired industry expert who has been in the construction industry for more than 30 years. “This will take many different forms, but clearly the era of dumb structures and materials is past. Everything we do going forward will be affected by technologies—either in the materials themselves or the way we design and assemble them.”

The technology that will be required will follow the same principals of any significant capital undertaking, according to Kissane, as it will require personnel, capital, equipment and materials. Also, in terms of types of technology, this will intersect with artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D modeling and nanotechnology.

The Convergence of Physical and Digital Infrastructure
To better understand how infrastructure will become smarter in the not-so distant future, construction professionals must first recognize the types of technologies that are here today that can help build more intelligent buildings and infrastructure tomorrow.

According to the University of Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction, smart infrastructure is the result of combining physical infrastructure with digital infrastructure, providing improved data to enable better decision making.

Physical infrastructure can include transport, energy, water, telecommunications, and waste, while digital infrastructure can include things like:

  • Sensors
  • The IoT
  • Networks
  • Building information modeling (BIM)
  • Geographic information systems (GIS)
  • Big data
  • Machine learning
  • And more...

The organization also suggests the next steps will need to address policy and government, clients and markets, society and citizens, and technology. Still, while smart infrastructure will vary from sector to sector, it will always have a similar anatomy that is made up of these basic layers connected by communications.

This connected infrastructure can help solve a number of challenges that currently exist. The University of Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction suggests it will allow owners and operators to get more out of what they already have and will give them a better understanding of performance of infrastructure.

Kissane adds that infrastructure can help solve “too many problems to describe.” However, he does point to one example, saying on-board devices in vehicles will help reduce or eliminate vehicle accidents and congestion while also making traffic patterns more manageable and even predictable.

The Impact on Construction
This smart infrastructure is coming—but how will it directly impact the work construction professionals are doing out at the jobsite?

“Beyond the obvious benefits of faster communications, improved safety and reduced costs, the technologies that are evolving before our eyes will create an order of magnitude domain of opportunity to apply new practices, materials and embedded technologies into everything we do,” explains Kissane. “Architects and designers will be challenged to spec the vast array of solution components that are coming available. Contractors alike will be provided the opportunity to create solutions in the built environment that go way beyond what was conceivable even 10 years ago.”

At the same time, technology and equipment are advancing at the construction jobsite, enabling construction professionals to have the necessary tools to build this smarter infrastructure.

This is particularly important in work zones where safety becomes a top priority for the construction industry. Many equipment manufacturers are unveiling smarter equipment for the jobsite to enable safer operations on infrastructure projects.

One example comes from Royal Truck & Equipment, which offers the autonomous TMA truck, or crash truck. This uses leader/follower technology based on existing systems that are used by the U.S. military. This helps heighten safety.

Building on that, Samantha Schwartz, marketing and business development manager, Royal Truck & Equipment, says the company has also launched a division of the company, Royal Innovative Solutions, which offers virtual reality training for the construction industry and work zones.

“Work zones can be extremely dangerous places to both work and to train employees,” says Schwartz. “With virtual reality, we can offer a highly visual platform, while keeping workers in the safety of an office for training.”

Technology is changing—both at the construction jobsite and in the physical structures that the industry is building, enabling safer construction and smarter infrastructure.

A Preview of the Next 20 Years

Today, new game-changing technologies are already being incorporated into the infrastructure of the future and are also providing a hint at what the next 20 years will look like.

“Democratization of data and flattening of decision-making approaches through blockchain will have a major effect on all organizations, and particularly on technology enablers,” concludes Kissane. “These breakthroughs will drive lower costs, faster decisions, and better choices.”

As this happens, the world will continue to increase its grasp on the IoT, and new infrastructure will begin to emerge. At the same time, nanotechnology has been evolving and will become increasingly more evident in the equipment, materials and processes used in construction.

The advances in technology to build smart infrastructure have rapidly emerged making it available today. Now, it is time for the construction industry to get to work building it.

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