While it might feel like the internet of things (IoT) is a fairly recent development and trend, its history goes all the way back to the 1980s with Coca Cola’s connected vending machine. Since the 2010s, its growth and popularity have accelerated, and we have been seeing numerous sectors appropriate IoT technology for their specific needs. Construction is one of the many industries to reap significant benefits from this technology.
The market size of IoT in construction was estimated at $7,8 billion in 2019 and is projected to be $16,8 billion by 2024, showing strong signs of growth. According to McKinsey, spending on construction accounts for 13% of the world’s GDP, but its productivity growth has stagnated, increasing by only 1% over the past 20 years. Here we will look at some of the key areas in which IoT can accompany the construction sector, to address important concerns such as productivity.
Construction sites require a variety of costly equipment and valuable materials. These sites also see a large influx of workers over time. To reduce the risk of theft, accidents or security breaches, remote site monitoring through IoT solutions is becoming widespread. Facial recognition and RFID tags can differentiate between authorised workers and intruders approaching a restricted area. Sensors can be applied to machines and vehicles in order to locate and trace them, or even detect when they require maintenance. Indeed, sensors can help detect vibrations or temperature fluctuations that indicate potential mechanical problems. They can also recognise movement patterns that indicate theft might be ongoing.
Strawberry Innovation, rated by Early Metrics in 2019, offers drone solutions for site inspection. Thanks to these services, routine inspections and site monitoring can be automated by installing drone ports on-site from which the drones fly autonomously. Users can then use the startup’s platform to review reports on any anomalies. Indeed, IoT and drones have been paired together by many startups to help oversee construction sites. Drones can be automatically sent out to inspect areas and equipment in response to sensors detecting an abnormality, without the need for human intervention.
Trends in building green have been continuously growing over the years. Building infrastructures with environment-friendly materials and integrating IoT to help manage resources such as water and electricity can help significantly reduce costs and environmental impact. Smart cities and smart buildings are a priority for many regions in the world today. Singapore, Tokyo, New York City and London are among the top investors in smart city initiatives. Using IoT in construction means designing buildings that can recognise when they are unoccupied, thus shutting down systems automatically to save energy and natural resources.
BEAD, placed in the top 5% of Early Metrics’ rated startups, offers an IoT solution to increase energy efficiency and reduce costs in buildings by collecting data through sensors. This data then helps building managers or owners to predict maintenance needs and monitor consumption in real-time. Other startups tackle the environmental impact of the construction process itself. QualisFlow helps construction teams ensure they work more sustainably by tracking, monitoring and predicting environmental risks in construction projects. The startup’s platform uses connected sensors, data analytics and machine learning to help automate compliance with environmental regulations.
IoT is often paired with wearables to help monitor the health and safety of a variety of people such as the elderly, patients at risk and workers. Thanks to IoT, construction workers can be monitored on the job remotely. Managers can be given an automated headcount, see who is working on a construction site and send out alerts in case of safety hazards. In fact, construction sites are some of the riskiest working environments. The OSHA reported that in 2018, 21% of worker fatalities were in construction. In 2019, 107 workers died and about 90,000 accidents occurred on construction sites in France. To avoid accidents or putting construction workers’ health at risk, sensors can be placed in wearables and adapted to different use cases: detect changes in air quality to alert workers they are entering a dangerous environment, monitor vitals such as heart rate, give warning of faulty equipment before use, notify of maintenance needs to avoid accidents, etc.
Several startups have been developing innovative solutions to ensure workers’ health and safety. TRAXxs, previously rated by Early Metrics, develops connected insoles for workers to wear. Alerts are sent out in cases of abnormal positioning, sudden loss of altitude or other accidents, to help companies monitor their workers’ safety. BeeInventor, also rated by Early Metrics, develops a connected helmet for construction workers. The helmet, called Dasloop, provides collision warning and fall detection as well as monitoring of body temperature and heart rate. Moreover, it enables outdoor GPS positioning or indoor beacon positioning with 3D models.
The construction sector is part of several industries experiencing worker shortages. In 2020, a JOLTS survey claimed the field is short of 350,000 workers, lacking young skilled professionals to replace the older generations soon to retire. Indeed, young adults are now typically seeking jobs that are less seasonal and physical.
IoT helps address worker shortage issues in a variety of ways, both directly and indirectly. Indirectly, incorporating more technology in the construction process could make construction jobs more appealing to younger generations, as worker safety is improved and some of the physical labour is facilitated. The combination of building information modelling (BIM) solutions, use of mobile apps, telematics-equipped machinery and wearable sensors help improve both safety and productivity while modernising a sector that is viewed as archaic by many young workers. Furthermore, thanks to IoT, construction managers can set up remote machine control, so that equipment can be given instructions remotely, which can both avoid dangerous situations for workers and also help automate projects.
Ultimately, construction is one of the least digitised sectors, though this has been changing in recent years. The growing need to avoid project delays, increase productivity and improve safety have pushed the sector to embrace various technologies, including IoT. Significant efforts are still needed to help the construction sector reshape itself and become more attractive to younger generations which will be needed in its future workforce. Collaborating with startups to achieve this can lead to promising results, which is being recognised both by investors funding several of these startups and companies signing partnerships with them.