Advances in architectural, engineering and construction (AEC) technologies typically come from technology providers instead of from practitioners, but regardless of where and when technological innovation occurs, it indelibly influences how AEC work is and will be done. It is important for companies to put these technological advances on their strategic roadmaps.

“Instead, what we often see is that companies are not well educated in the new technologies or processes that are available to them for documentation,” says John Russo, president of USIBD, a non-profit membership organization dedicated to supporting all stakeholders with an interest in building documentation. “Fortunately, AEC technology providers are always looking for new ways to improve the efficiencies of their products, increase their bottom lines and stay ahead of their competition. More often than not, it is this motivation that drives change in our industry.”

One major technological advance in the AEC industry that Russo and others are seeing is in the use of photo imagery to document progress on construction sites. “Photo imagery, as opposed to laser scanning, is fast, easy and does not require the same level of technical expertise,” Russo says. “It also doesn’t require as much storage space to house the data.”

Russo says he is also seeing more requests by designers for laser scan data. “This tells me that the industry is becoming more educated on the benefits of scan data. However, I am also finding that many of the same individuals making the requests often are unfamiliar with how to work with the data.”

Finding Time to Take in New Technologies

For surveyors and many others in the AEC industry, it can be difficult to find the time to explore new technologies, especially when workloads are heavy and office staff is lean.

“What we see now is very much like when GPS was first introduced,” Russo says. “Initially, surveyors struggled with whether or not to get on board with GPS. In the course of doing this, there were a number of surveyors who decided not to add that technology to their toolboxes. But still, others did and I believe that this inspired increased adoption of GPS in the industry. Today, I still see some surveyors struggling to accept technologies such as static and mobile laser scanning. It is clear, though, that technology is going to continue to advance. As technology advances, it will continue to transform the way that surveyors and others in the AEC industry do their jobs. What the question will be for each practitioner is: How quickly will he or she adopt these new technologies, and what are the risks of doing so or not doing so?”

The comfort spot for many practitioners is that they already have a set of tools that they are familiar with. Nevertheless, workflows are and will continue to emerge where their end customers will demand deliverables that only newer technologies can produce.

In one example, the city of Los Angeles now uses a GIS-based system for all road maintenance. Meanwhile, in the building information modeling (BIM) space, government agencies in the U.S. and abroad have either adopted or are considering adopting new BIM technology and documentation requirements that could preclude firms that fail to adopt these practices and technologies from contract bidding processes.

Where New Technologies are Making an Impact

“In particular, we are seeing the use of scanning for floor flatness,” Russo says. “It seems to be on the rise as contractors are finding that it is far more valuable to map the floor with millions of three-dimensional data points versus the traditional survey method of staking out a grid. To that end, I am also seeing software solutions such as the Rithm App and laser scan data that provide floor flatness reports that are challenging the traditional dipstick method for checking floor flatness.”

There has also been an uptick in the use of augmented reality software.

“Technologies like augmented reality come into play as more companies want to see a world that is yet unbuilt in the form of a built environment before they build it,” Russo says. “Augmented or mixed reality through things like wearable devices such as helmets or glasses will soon give us the ability to stand in an unbuilt space and see how it will look when completed. It will give maintenance and construction personnel the ability to see through walls and ceilings to understand where concealed utilities are. Products such as Microsoft’s HoloLens and the DAQRI helmet are paving the way for this type of technology to make it a market.”

In the case of Microsoft HoloLens, a wearable holographic computer provides a see-through holographic display with advanced sensors that map actual physical environments and then enable users to merge physical environmental data with digital data from outside documentation and other sources. The result is a “mixed reality” rendering that combines both actual and emulated data into a projection of an environment that is greater than the sum of its parts. The resulting 3D holograms can easily be shared over the cloud with other collaborators on a given project.

“There is definitely a trend today towards more cloud-based solutions, whether this is for BIM collaboration, file sharing or even sharing laser scan data,” Russo says. “This is happening because many of the technological hurdles that slowed down the adoption of cloud-based solutions — e.g., concerns about security — are no longer barriers. As the barriers to using the cloud are being removed, the challenge is now shifting control of the data to cloud and how to track who is making changes. Of course, there are still many legal aspects to using cloud-based solutions, which is why we are probably going to still see the use of in-house systems continue.”

Openness to using the cloud increases affordability and deployment options for AEC companies, but they can also move forward with their technology advances if they opt to remain with in-house systems. The caveat for in-house systems, however, is that your company must also deploy and maintain its own local area and wide area networks to support collaboration and interaction with technologies and persons in the field.

In the field, drone-based work in the AEC sector is almost certain to increase, especially for contractors doing site assessments, working in remote and hazardous areas, and monitoring jobsite progress. For these types of applications, drones can gather a tremendous amount of information rapidly and very affordably.

There are also new timekeeping applications that enable companies that need to keep track of workers in the field to use the GPS on each worker’s smart phone to track and log time and position throughout the day. For several years, the logistics industry has used these time and location tracking applications effectively to track productivity and efficiency in the field. It doesn't seem too remote or far-fetched to see this capability, which is already field-proven, implemented by AEC companies as well.

The question now is: How quickly will AEC companies adopt these new, available and largely affordable technologies?

“While the AEC industry does seem to be advancing rather quickly, it is still rather common that the various stakeholder groups (owners, architects, engineers, contractors, surveyors, service providers, etc.) are often stuck in their own silos,” Russo says. “We need to break down the barriers between these silos and get the stakeholders to come together to solve the challenges the industry faces. Organizations such as the U.S. Institute of Building Documentation are doing just that. The USIBD provides a place for people to come for networking and education, as well as helping to establish standards, best practices and research on new technologies. I encourage everyone who has an interest in helping the industry to advance to get involved.”