Despite the growing use of drones in construction, unlocking real value from the data they collect remains a challenge. Sion Geschwindt caught up with AI Clearing CTO and co-founder Adam Wisniewski to find out why a mix of AI and data integration may hold the key
Construction has traditionally lagged behind other industries in terms of productivity and its adoption of digital technologies.
Global labour-productivity growth in construction has averaged only 1% a year over the past two decades, compared with 2.8% for the total world economy and 3.6% in manufacturing.
Moreover, the industry consistently ranks poorly in its level of digitisation when compared to other sectors.
Yet, despite a somewhat sluggish start, the digital transformation of the industry is in full swing. According to a 2021 NBS survey, 73% of UK firms were aware of and currently using BIM, when compared to just 48% in 2015, and over a third already use immersive tech such as VR/AR.
The survey also revealed that over 75% of the industry now use cloud computing, compared with 42% in 2020.
Drone-related technologies are also booming, with over half of UK construction firms currently utilising these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
A bird’s-eye view
Whether to conduct surveys, map sites, identify safety risks, or even transport materials, drones offer multiple benefits to contractors.
They are especially good at gathering and documenting routine site data to track project progress. Equipped with the latest in photogrammetry, drones can survey an entire construction site in a matter of minutes, capturing high-resolution images and videos.
But according to AI Clearing CTO and co-founder Adam Wisniewski, capturing images is the easy part. The hard part, he says, is converting that data into actionable insights that add real value to the construction process.
“When drones first came into the industry there were big expectations,” says Wisniewski. “Equipped with the latest technology, they promised to create whole digital twins of reality – changing the way construction sites were managed for good.”
Wisniewski was leading some of Poland’s largest infrastructure projects when drones first started appearing on site.
He spearheaded the development of the first drone-powered construction supervision service for oil and gas pipelines, and later went on to direct PwC’s Drone Powered Solutions programme before co-founding AI Clearing.
Wisniewski continues: “Despite extensive use of drones, many companies started to notice that the actual use of the data they collected was dropping.
“Why? Because there were very few tools available to integrate this data with the web of other information like the schedule, budget, and workflow in a way that had tangible benefits. This posed a real challenge for construction teams.”
AI Clearing was founded in 2019 to tackle this challenge. Headquartered in Austin, Texas, and supported by its R&D hub in Warsaw, Poland, the start-up has developed a powerful mix of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and 4D geospatial analytics to unlock real value from drone data.
Their AI Surveyor analytics platform brings together data from multiple sources including drones, GIS, and design information to uncover digital insights across large infrastructure projects.
This data integration approach is coupled with powerful AI algorithms that are able to track site changes and errors to a 99.98% degree of accuracy.
This enables managers to monitor the progress of work almost in real time and cross check this progress with the design and schedule.
With the current boom in the solar market, a major demand for these insights has been coming specifically from utility-scale solar farms.
AI Clearing recently trained their AI models to recognise key objects installed during solar farm construction.
This enables the company’s software to identify each individual component of the solar farm autonomously, tracking progress and highlighting errors.
“Solar farms are particularly challenging because they have to be built very quickly, cover huge surface areas, and many contractors have never built them before,” says Wisniewski, “which is why creating a clear picture of site progress is even more critical.”
AI Clearing is working on a series of solar projects with a combined capacity of 1.3GW. The company has already tracked the completion status of over two million panels, delivered over 300 progress reports, and identified more than 3,000 discrepancies.
At one of these sites, a 70MW solar farm under construction in the US, drones fly out each day and take aerial images which are fed into AI Clearing’s platform.
“Those companies who are quick to adapt will ultimately reap the rewards”
This information is displayed on an interactive dashboard, so site managers can login each morning and see the number of piles, racks, and modules completed the day before.
These analytical insights help eliminate delays, reworks, and waste – making the construction of solar farms more efficient and sustainable.
But these benefits don’t just apply to solar farms but to all construction projects. And applying digital tools like AI Clearing’s software can also help contractors tackle one of the industry’s biggest conundrums: chronic labour shortages.
The future of work
Wisniewski believes that infrastructure priorities, labour and skills shortages, and the rise of remote working will only accelerate the adoption of construction technologies like drones.
“Governments across the world are pumping billions into huge infrastructure projects, especially in the push to decarbonise,” he says.
“But there is a chronic skills and labour shortage in the sector. Adopting digital tech is not a choice – it’s the only way we will be able to build at the scale and pace necessary.”
While many companies were already moving towards increasing technological uptake and remote working, the COVID-19 pandemic has quickened the pace.
Faced with global lockdowns, firms were forced to adapt to the ‘new normal’ or risk going under. Those who already made digital investments were better prepared, while those who failed to spend quickly realised they needed to get on board.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed a lot of companies to realise that construction doesn’t always have to be a hands-on process,” Wisniewski says.
“Helmet-mounted cameras, drones, and AI-powered capture processes are enabling managers to track site progress without ever leaving the office.
“These changes are happening right now, and those companies who are quick to adapt will ultimately reap the rewards.”
Main image: Adam Wisniewski, CTO and co-founder, AI Clearing
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