Emerging Tech to Keep an Eye On

The iPhone turned the construction industry on its head, changing the way work is performed in the office and at the jobsite—and causing construction companies to change the way technology is implemented. What is the next big technology that is coming to projects? Everything from wearables, to robots, to drones, are being touted as the next big thing, but perhaps one of the best ways to know what is coming is to take a glimpse into some of the most cutting-edge research being conducted at universities today.

What is the next big technology that is coming to projects …

Self-Assessing Robots

Robots are one thing. Intelligent robots are another. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, www.cmu.edu, Pittsburgh, Pa., are working to include robots and other autonomous systems with the ability of self-assessment, now that’s truly smart. These intelligent machines will be able to predict how well they can perform a task or to sense if a task is going well. In some cases, it might even include a robot providing an explanation to a human about its performance. Additionally, the researchers will test approaches using dexterous search tasks for robots, such as maneuvering limbs to investigate obscured items, manipulating objects to reveal contents, and adversarial manipulation. While there are a number of potential applications for smart robots such as this, the construction industry stands to benefit. One potential use case is micro-drone swarms sent to map buildings, among other use cases. This research project is currently in a five-year, $7.5 million multidisciplinary university research initiative program.

Energy-Saving Sensor

Sensors could soon reduce the cost and environmental impact of operating a building’s HVAC (heating, air conditioning, and ventilation) system, according to new research from Purdue University, www.purdue.edu, West Lafayette, Ind. The school is leading a new U.S. Dept. of Energy project to develop sensors to continuously determine how many people are occupying a room or building by measuring changes in carbon dioxide concentration, which will allow energy savings by largely restricting air conditioning and heating to occupied areas. The new sensor combines two  unique technologies. First a sensor will detect the presence of carbon dioxide. Then another sensor will perform precise measurements to determine if people are located in a particular room. The sensor will be slightly larger than a postage stamp and will cost less than six cents per square footage of a building space to operate. The university research project is funded with a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Dept. of Energy.

Cementing Concrete

Perhaps one of the biggest changes coming to the construction industry is to the materials themselves. Experts from the University of Exeter, www.exeter.ac.uk, Exeter, U.K., have developed a new technique that uses nanoengineering technology to incorporate graphene into traditional concrete production. This material is twice as strong, four times more water resistant than exiting concretes, and can be used directly by the construction industry on building sites. The new material also reduces the carbon footprint of conventional concrete production methods, meaning it is more sustainable and environmentally friendly. Previous work using nanotechnology has concentrated on modifying existing components of cement. The university research team insists that this new method could lead to other nanomaterials to be incorporated into concrete, which will alter the construction industry worldwide. This research will additionally change how construction, and off-site manufacturing, are done in the future.

Honing in on Homes

Could smart-home technology improve the economy? One new university research program is saying yes. The Centre for Energy Policy at the University of Strathclyde, www.strath.ac.uk, Glasgow, U.K., modeled the potential economic returns of an investment in a program to improve the energy efficiency of homes across Scotland. The university researchers suggest that the combination of spending, energy-efficiency gains, and increased household spending could deliver a boost to the Scottish economy—which includes retrofitting energy-efficiency measures, insulation, and installation of new heating technology to make homes warmer. The research suggests that this program, combined with the outcome of making Scottish households more energy efficient, could create 6,000 sustained full-time jobs. Using detailed data from the government, the researchers estimate the 20-year program of improvements could lead to an average 9.6% reduction in the energy required to run Scottish households.

Deciphering the Data Dilemma

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges in the construction industry today is the rate at which data is growing. Scientists from RMIT University, www.rmit.edu.au, Melbourne, Australia, and the Wuhan Institute of Technology, China, www.wit.edu.cn, Wuhan, China, have drawn on the durable power of gold to create a new type of high-capacity optical disk that can hold data securely for more than 600 years. This could improve the energy efficiency of data centers by requiring far less cooling and doing away with the energy-intensive task of data migration every two years. Optical disks are also more secure than hard disks, according to RMIT University. This will help address the world’s data storage challenge, while supporting the data revolution that is currently taking place in construction. Although the university suggests the world is now shifting from Big Data toward Long Data, which enables new insights to be discovered through the mining of massive datasets that capture changes across the span of decades and even centuries.