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Drugs, maps and trackers: Meet the industry's tech trailblazers

With tech start-ups and fresh ideas vital to digitising construction, Binyamin Ali spoke to three sector newcomers looking to transform 3D mapping, project tracking and even drug testing.

The relationship between technology and the construction industry is slowly improving.

Realising the dominance of the traditional methods used to design and build assets in the sector, innovators in 3D printing, programme management and material recycling are all being drawn to the industry. Pioneers looking to improve the health and safety performance of the sector through virtual reality training programmes are also being warmly received in some quarters.

While there is a growing acceptance of technology, the industry is still playing catch-up in several areas. A survey by US consultant McKinsey last year found that, over the previous 12 years, global sectors such as agriculture, forestry and fishing had all digitised and improved productivity at a faster rate than construction.

However, positive signs continue to emerge. US computer software giant Oracle purchased Textura and Aconex in 2016 and 2017, in deals worth a total of nearly £2bn. Textura is a construction contracts and payment service, while Aconex is a project management software firm – both are cloud-based platforms and have been integrated into Oracle’s existing services for the industry.

New entrants and fresh perspectives will be crucial to taking construction forward. With this in mind, CN spoke to three start-up firms that have entered the industry in the past two years and are working to remove traditional approaches to 3D mapping, project tracking and even drug testing.

Disperse.io

“We thought getting people to embrace our solution would be the hardest thing to do, but that turned out to be the easiest thing,” says Disperse.io co-founder and CEO Felix Neufeld. “As soon as we positioned our solution in a way that makes sense for the site managers, planners, project directors, we actually stopped selling our solution.”

This was December 2017, at which point start-up firm Disperse.io secured work with “three large construction companies”. Since then, the digital reporting provider has been spending its time, energy and resources on delivering the best possible service to its clients.

Disperse tracks the progress of a building during the fit-out stage by using a combination of 2D images, artificial intelligence and human intervention. The fit-out phase of the project cycle was chosen because contractors cited this as the point at which projects become highly complex with limited visibility across the work.

Disperse.io 1

Disperse.io 1

As well as acting as a progress tracker, the service also helps the client identify any problems with the build almost as soon as they occur, stopping them becoming bigger and more expensive issues further down the line.

“In manufacturing, you instantly know when something has gone wrong – either through sensors or something not coming out as it should,” Mr Neufeld says. “Each time that occurs, you solve the problem at a moment in time when it hasn’t had the chance to become a big problem.

“Also, you have the full context in that time to find out what has gone wrong in your process to create the problem. In real-time dynamic [construction] environments, that’s not the case because you’re always identifying the problem much later and you’re lacking the contextual information – you don’t have anything like a black box in a plane.”

How it works

The first step in the process is gathering all of the image data, which can be done by a client or someone from Disperse. This involves walking throughout the building with a 360-degree camera, which captures everything in 2D pictures. This takes a few seconds per room, Mr Neufeld says, and is done once a week.

“We can tell our customers to what extent things are out of sequence, what is progressing as fast as it should and what is not” 

Felix Neufeld, Disperse.io

The images are then sent to the AI system, which extracts the components that are being tracked from the images (floors, lighting, drylining, light switches).

Disperse uses AI and deep learning, which means it is able to deal with a certain amount of variability. One of the advantages of this is the components being tracked and how they are tracked can be changed, depending on what the client needs.

Disperse.io 3

Disperse.io 3

“Already within our system, we have all the connections of how those components relate back to the task and what it means for the project,” Mr Neufeld says. “That means we can tell our customers to what extent things are out of sequence, what is progressing as fast as it should and what is not.”

The company also has a team of architects that support the AI and fill in any gaps. “At the beginning, those gaps were quite big but over time we have gotten much better and we will get even better, but we don’t anticipate a moment in time where there will be zero human interaction,” Mr Neufeld adds.

All issues are flagged to the client and it is up to them to decide whether or not to take action.

As well as removing the need for staff to gather data and freeing them up to analyse the data and act on it, it could also help with dispute resolution, according to Canary Wharf Contractors head of planning Tony Lonergan.

“In terms of claims, both upwards with clients and downwards with the supply chain, it can make the difference between having to go to a lawyer to recover your costs or not because it’s photographic,” he says. “We can go back week on week and because it’s in every room, it should soon become apparent whether the progress was in a certain condition at a certain time, without people having to go through their records – you’ve got an as-built database.”

GeoSLAM

GeoSLAM provides handheld 3D mapping scanners that produce digital models of the physical world.

The company was established in 2012 by a joint venture comprising Australia’s scientific research agency CSIRO and a 20-year-old 3D mapping company called 3D Laser Mapping.

GeoSLAM launched its Zeb-Revo handheld scanner in 2016, which was followed by an upgraded model in 2017 that can scan and process information simultaneously.

Zeb-Revo scans physical spaces and structures as the user walks through or around an area. It is most effective in enclosed and feature-rich spaces, the company says, such as buildings, mines and caves, with the company boasting customers in various related industries.

Geo slam jpg

Geo slam jpg

Construction use case

The use of BIM Level 2 has been mandated by the UK government on centrally procured projects since April 2016, with other industry clients increasingly stipulating its use in contracts. However, while this applies to new buildings, there have rarely been similar requirements to create BIM models of existing buildings.

This is in a large part due to the time and cost implications of doing so, but this is one of the hurdles GeoSLAM’s technology aims to overcome. Zeb-Revo’s scans can be used to generate a BIM model from scratch, can be fed into an existing BIM model, or be opened up in a CAD package.

“You can do construction verification on a live building site on weekly basis. Every week, you can be checking progress on site by doing a scan” 

Stuart Cadge, GeoSLAM

“The figure we tend to state is: you can map a three-storey building in 30 minutes,” says GeoSLAM marketing co-ordinator Stuart Cadge. “In a building environment, because it’s handheld, it means you can get it into lots of nooks and crannies. We have scanned a 14th century house which was full of spiral staircases and enclosed tight spaces, which a traditional tripod would not be able to do.”

The scans can also be used to produce 2D layouts of buildings, which Mr Cadge says are accurate to 2-3 cm. And similarly to Disperse.io, GeoSLAM believes its technology can be used to monitor the progress of a live construction project.

“We’ve teamed up with other software suppliers as part of that,” Mr Cadge says. “The offering is if you have a Zeb-Revo, you can do construction verification on a live building site on weekly basis. Every week, you can be checking progress on site by doing a scan.”

Unlike Disperso, however, GeoSLAM doesn’t provide this as a service. The Zeb-Revo product and its accompanying software can either be bought or rented, with the use and interpretation of the data entirely down to the user.

Nevertheless, because the technology does not use GPS, the mining and civil engineering industries have been especially receptive towards its use, GeoSLAM reports.

Intelligent Fingerprinting

New technology for the construction industry is not limited to innovations aimed at driving down costs and improving efficiency in the build process. In the case of Intelligent Fingerprinting, technology is being used to improve health and safety practices and compliance.

The brainchild of founder and chief scientific officer David Russell, Intelligent Fingerprinting conducts drug screening tests through a fingerprint. “When you look at a fingerprint, it’s actually made up of sweat and fatty materials,” says Intelligent Fingerprint business development director Paul Yates. 

“That is just the same as any other bodily fluid, such as blood, urine or saliva, in as much as they will contain information that will tell you something about the person. You can look for something called metabolites, which are the by-products of the body’s metabolism from things that you have ingested or eaten.”

Prof Russell’s idea was to isolate the metabolites found in the sweat of a fingerprint and analyse them for traces of drugs.

Intellegent Fingerprint

Intellegent Fingerprint

How it works

The first step in the process is getting the fingerprint of the person who is to receive a drug test. This is done by having them press their finger on a collection cartridge, which is then inserted into the reader unit for testing and analysis.

Measuring about 20 x 15 x 10 cm, the reader unit releases chemicals that target the metabolites for four drugs of abuse. “The first four we’ve looked at are amphetamines, cannabis, cocaine and opiates, which includes things like heroin,” Dr Yates explains.

The results are reported as either positive or negative.

“Intelligent Fingerprinting is as simple of walking up to somebody and saying, ‘Your name has come out of a hat for a random drugs test, place your finger on this cartridge’, and that’s it” 

Paul Yates, Intelligent Fingerprinting

With a cost of around £10 per test attached to the solution, which will go up or down depending on the number of tests being done, Dr Yates admits it’s not the cheapest drug-testing option. “It’s probably comparable to oral fluid testing, but urine testing is usually quite a lot cheaper,” he says. “That’s due to a combination of it being around the longest, and it’s become a very commodity-driven industry in as much as you can buy test cups very cheaply and sometimes their accuracy is not as good.”

Dr Yates says the benefits emerge when you consider the invasive and time-consuming process of collecting urine samples, which requires gender-specific sample collectors and all the taps in the bathrooms having to be sealed, while some companies will require it to be an observed sample.

“[Intelligent Fingerprinting is] as simple of walking up to somebody and saying, ‘Your name has come out of a hat for a random drugs test, place your finger on this cartridge’, and that’s it. You’ve collected the sample,” Dr Yates says.

The drugs Intelligent Fingerprinting can test for are currently limited to the aforementioned four, and it cannot detect alcohol. However, the company is working towards catering to the specific needs of customers. “In rail, for example, they have a defined panel of drugs they screen for, so we’ll be adding those,” Dr Yates says.

The product was launched in the final quarter of 2017 and is being used by contractors in the construction industry, but Dr Yates is unable to disclose their identity.

If successful, the solution could help the industry take another step towards ensuring its workers are fit to be on site and handling heavy machinery.

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