As a crane operator, Frank needs to keep an eye on a long list of things on the ground and in the air around the business end of his rig as it trembles in the winds and groans under the load of a new bucket of concrete coming up.
His ground spotter’s voice crackles in his ear reassuringly and his high-resolution video screens give him a clear view of everything around that bucket as he swings around to deliver the pour. A light touch on the joystick and he’s in perfect position, the laser guides confirming he’s good to go as the load dumps into the forms and the project under construction inches up another notch.
Except, Frank isn’t on the site. He’s in an office miles away, in a temperature controlled cockpit with an array of video screens. There was no climb up in freezing rain into a cramped cabin.
Welcome to construction in 2030 where 5G technology has revolutionized how things are done.
It’s not science fiction and it’s only a slight step up from remote miners who similarly sit in cockpits and remotely operate machines in mines miles away.
The difference is that 5G wireless technology is changing the way we harness digital controls and devices in all sectors with construction about to see some major changes.
“It’s the single biggest technology transformation in our lifetime,” says Paul Challoner, VP of network production solutions at Ericsson, based in Plano, Texas. “It gives an order of speed, of gigabytes per second that 4G can’t touch and without latency issues so you can deal with drones, autonomous vehicles, cranes. I think every aspect of our society and business, every sector of the economy will really depend on 5G and need to get on board.”
The difference is not just bandwidth, which in the early days of wireless technology was limited and is still limited today by issues of demand and latency, but that 5G also marries into other advanced IT of Cloud and the rapidly growing field of Artificial Intelligence.
It’s also reliable so that there are no issues with critical applications like remote crane operations or flying drones around a site, he adds.
It’s early days yet for the construction industry, which is notoriously risk adverse and cost conscious. However, the potential for revolutionary change is on the boards already and in China, for example, the China State Construction Engineering Corp. is piloting it in Bejing tying in Building Information Modeling, big data and other digital applications.
They believe once they have the wrinkles worked out and set standards for applications, they can improve quality, cost control, schedule compliance and security.
When combined with wearable technology it can also monitor occupational health and safety.
Ericsson has also trialed a 5G concept in construction, working with Volvo where both are based in Sweden, says Challoner.
It sought to create a remote control system for construction equipment and wherever possible automate solutions. Those learnings are being applied to the next trial.
The power of 5G is in it’s ability to allocate bandwidth as needed by priority, he says, so that means “pipe capacity” can be allocated to high resolution video as a priority while other data allocations, for transmissions of emails for example, can be moved down the list.
That’s not to say they’ll be delayed, the effect is really not more than seconds because when you’re operating a crane for example, or flying a drone to map site progress, you can’t afford latency, he explains. It’s too risky because the operator has to be able to override and react if needed.
“But it has applications on the jobsite lifecycle from the start,” he says.
Drones can be programmed to fly a site pattern to lay in GPS co-ordinates, to monitor grades, depths of excavations. They can also be set up to automatically fly surveillance over the site for security both in daylight and at night, cutting labour costs.
Caisson locations are more accurately mapped in, 3D drawings of structure can be overlaid over emerging structures for both visual and automated checks, inventory and assets can be tagged and tracked, allowing for more accurate supply chain replenishment since it can be automated. That system can also help with inventory shrinkage onsite, he adds.
Further, on large sites, autonomous vehicles can plug into the 5G control network and be programmed to make their repetitive runs. Dump trucks can move dirt, bob cats can be automatically moved around the site.
Inside 5G can be wired into the utilities from the get-go, routing alongside plumbing, HVAC and power and allowing for the installation of addressable controls for lighting, security cameras and sensors, temperature monitors and other operating side applications, which are essential to today’s energy efficient building operations.
“The difference is that 4G can handle 10,000 to 100,000 devices per square mile but with 5G you’re getting one million,” he states.
Depending on the service provider, you also pay for what you need so you can ramp up your usage based on need. Early phase project construction needs less bandwidth than mid phase where there’s a lot going on and then ramping down as the job moves to final phase and hand over as finishing trades move in.
“5G applications can be a labour saving solution and a major safety tool,” he says. “So there’s a cost saving and a safety factor and an economic benefit.”