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How technologies improve infrastructure and contribute to its longevity and adaptability

Much like critical road and city infrastructure, many of the technologies that support the construction industry go unnoticed. These technologies are helping businesses to operate more efficiently and effectively, by increasing visibility into staff, infrastructure and operations. The construction industry itself is undergoing a largescale digital transformation. Given the ever-increasing consumer demand, strain on resources and complexity of projects in this sector combined with new regulations and guidelines, many are turning to technology as a solution.

Infrastructure varies greatly – from a new road to a high-tech high-rise – and as such, when it comes to technology integration and implementation there is no one-size fits all approach. One increasingly noticeable trend is that infrastructure is starting to ‘talk back’.  With smart technology, it is now possible to access live data, allowing real-time reporting of a structure’s condition, enabling managers to remotely monitor and predict routine and emergency maintenance. A key sensor can be worth a thousand visits by an inspection engineer, as it can alert to different patterns of frequency and life.

Improving longevity

There are many cases where technology improves infrastructure’s longevity. For instance, consider basic city level infrastructure in a location that is regularly affected by extreme weather. When it comes to bridges, crucial road links, and mainland connections, upkeep needs to be carefully monitored in order to keep a city running smoothly and safely. Wireless Internet of Things (IoT) bridge sensors can keep track of all aspects of a bridge’s health, collecting data in areas such as vibration, pressure, humidity and temperature. This data can be used to predict early signs of damage and deterioration. A perfect illustration of this is Greece’s Charilaos Trikoupis Bridge. Shortly after opening, the structure’s inbuilt sensors detected abnormal vibrations in the cables leading engineers to install additional weight to dampen the cables. Without the installation of smart technology, inspectors would not have been aware of the structure’s fragility.

Similarly, HiKoB IoT road sensors can be embedded to measure variables such as temperature, humidity and traffic volume. This data can then be sent via a wireless network to a server for processing and analysis, allowing road crews to prioritise maintenance during harsh weather conditions, which are responsible for almost a quarter of car accidents.[1] In one study involving Boston Taxis, wireless sensors were used to monitor the state of road surfaces, detecting the number of potholes in various roads. All of this contributes to helping teams, councils or businesses effectively maintain infrastructure, ultimately, contributing to improving their safety and longevity.

Increasing adaptability

Over the next few years, software will be increasingly incorporated into infrastructure. Sensor networks are already being deployed in tunnels to monitor air flow, visibility and a range of pollutant gases. While other sensors are measuring temperature, humidity and various parameters on highways to make them ‘smart roads’. This data helps to monitor everyday conditions that could otherwise affect road safety and usage.

The roll out of wireless sensors on roads will eventually allow the public to accurately track public transport. The powerful aspect of such a network of communicating and interoperating systems is that there is the potential to influence the traffic in real-time. This could mean navigating or filtering traffic and congestion as it occurs, as opposed to the previous historical data analysis, where implementation is entirely reliant on retrospective decision making. In fact, the value of data collected in many instances is reduced dramatically even minutes after the event.

Interestingly, smart sensors are also being implemented to make traffic light infrastructure more efficient. At present, the most common traffic signalling system worldwide is the timer-based system, which involves a predefined time setting for each road at any given intersection. Whilst this system operates day-to-day, it struggles to cater for peak periods and for busier incoming lanes. A dynamic traffic system has been proven to work far more successfully, where a variety of sensors are used to determine which routes require greater priority, ultimately, dictating a right of way to speed up traffic flows. In this instance, technology not only improves infrastructure but contributes to its adaptability and efficiency for the benefit of the end-user.

Futureproofing and visibility

Connected technologies are also helping to increase awareness and provide visibility into individual infrastructure energy and resource usage. Devices that increase visibility into usage have been proven to save money, as well as conserve precious resources. Technology is also being implemented to improve efficiency in construction planning and design. Building Information Modelling (BIM) is currently used by construction professionals to assist with project design. Combining BIM with real-time data can make it much easier for multiple parties to access and modify building plans and drawings. Virtual reality (VR) is expected to help designers and clients see 3D VR construction models with the hope of eliminating errors before building commences, where mistakes become more costly.

Building materials can also be tracked in real-time and live data can be used to determine when workers clock in or take breaks, monitoring output and improving overall productivity. Likewise, artificial intelligence (AI) can be implemented within the construction industry for predictive aspects, such as estimating the ordering of materials, the likelihood of risks or supply chain disruption and other areas where substantial quantities of data exist. These technologies may become commonplace within the industry, to boost efficiency and manage increasingly large-scale projects.

Indeed, in many areas of construction, technology is becoming increasingly influential and pervasive. These technologies are no longer a pipe dream and are being implemented in businesses in all sectors. It’s presence within construction is likely to increase exponentially. As technology continues to evolve and be applied, businesses will gain a further understanding of the efficiency and cost savings it brings in different areas, including increasing infrastructure longevity, adaptability and visibility.

Article submitted by Professor Kevin Curran, Senior IEEE Member and professor of cybersecurity at Ulster University


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