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Technology can increase onsite health and safety

Onsite technology can offer financial and safety-related benefits, but is the Middle East’s construction sector listening?

Redbird and Caterpillar have entered into an agreement to operate drones on construction sites.
Redbird and Caterpillar have entered into an agreement to operate drones on construction sites.

Investments towards improving onsite safety are rapidly gaining traction in the GCC’s construction industry. Regulatory, policy, and technological developments in the field are being driven by both public and private sector outfits, with site workers and labourers expected to accrue the benefits of intelligent health, safety, and environment (HSE) strategies and systems.

Contractors’ HSE programmes, however, are more likely to meet their targets if companies incorporate technology into their operations. Drones, for instance, have already been adopted in the regional construction sector, with the UAE’s government agencies leading the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for mainstream inspection activities. 

In September 2015, Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority (DSOA) introduced a smart security surveillance programme at its free-zone technology park, in collaboration with the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority (DCAA). The initiative, which covers the authority’s Dubai Silicon Oasis (DSO) zone, will see the deployment of drones to help coordinate onsite security and surveillance functions.

DSOA’s drone operations will follow guidelines set forth by the DCAA for remote piloted aerial vehicles. In addition to being trained on the basic operation of the machines, drone operators will also be familiar with the Terrestrial Trunked Radio (TETRA) system. The platform allows SMS exchanges between handset-to-handset calls, as well as location pinpointing through the on-board GPS.

Industry experts believe drone surveillance is the starting point of technology’s full potential to participate in – and contribute to – daily onsite construction operations.

However, while the Middle East’s construction industry has traditionally been apprehensive about technology’s value-for-money aspect, this reluctance appears to be diminishing in the region.

Jimmy Lundberg, product manager for Volvo Construction Equipment’s (CE) CareTrack telematics system, says the magnified focus on construction site safety is promoting the understanding and uptake of onsite technology in the region. The original equipment manufacturer (OEM) is working on updates to its telematics systems, which it expects to launch at Germany’s bauma 2016 this April. The new services, Lundberg claims, are aimed at “creating customer value across different areas”, such as efficiency, productivity, and safety.

“The Middle East is a lot more advanced now than it was even when I started working a few years ago,” he tells Construction Week.

“Our customers and dealers are a lot more aware of the advantages of telematics now, and we’re seeing a really big change in the region.”

Lundberg’s optimism about the Middle East seems justified when contextualised within the region’s busy global events calendar. Technological philosophies, such as the implementation of building information modelling (BIM), are already gaining popularity as clients, consultants, and contractors look to reduce onsite construction delays. The achievement of these scheduling targets will require a greater level of coordination between onsite and offsite technology, Suhail Arfath, head of Autodesk Consulting’s Middle East operations asserts.

“Autodesk’s InfraWorks 360, for instance, can bring satellite imagery, land records data, finance, and designs together – and look at it as an integrated framework,” he says, adding onsite tools such as these can pave the way for prompt pre-construction decisions.

“Seeing is believing and with major infrastructure developments like Dubai Expo 2020 and 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar, we don’t have time to experiment.”

In some ways, the construction industry’s technological evolution will be driven by similar laudable achievements within the customer technology segment. Dubai’s push for drones demonstrates how the functionality of general technologies can be amended to suit industry needs. Machinery manufacturer Caterpillar’s partnership with aerial data-collection company, Redbird, in January further exemplifies the international construction market’s resolve to migrate towards smart operations.

Remarking on the deal with Caterpillar, Emmanuel de Maistre, CEO and co-founder of Redbird, said the drone design process is evolving to incorporate “data analytics at its heart”.

“Our solutions have been developed with construction and quarry operators for the past two years, helping them extract the real value out of drone data,” he added.

The primary application of UAV technology in assisting machinery-led operations is the collection of the topographical and operational data at quarry and construction sites, enabling detailed project analyses and modelling with the aim of improving project efficiency. Kjeld Jespersen, Caterpillar’s construction technology and solutions manager, says Redbird’s services are “absolutely relevant for Middle Eastern markets”.

He continues: “Customers [in the region] are facing similar issues as in other parts of the world. Drones and data processing ensure the best accuracy. We are currently looking at evaluating the legal framework for flying drones in the Middle East, and based on our ability to fly the drones, we will provide the services outlined by Redbird.

Jespersen says the Cat-Redbird partnership will develop systems that can cater to a broad range of operators, especially onsite contractors, quarry managers, project developers, and government HSE inspectors.

Nevertheless, industry attitudes will have to undergo sweeping transformations if drones, and sensor-fitted helmets and machines are to find their way onto a construction site, as Bhupinder Singh, senior vice president of Bentley Software, explains.

“It used to take two years to get a telephone line when I was growing up in India,” he says.

“Then the cell phone era came and we just skipped a whole generation of having to build fixed-line infrastructure for landline phones. We may well have to skip a whole generation of technology today to reach the next level.”

Lundberg admits he has more than once encountered key decision makers unenthusiastic about out-of-office construction technology, such as telematics, but insists this approach can be changed with the right troubleshooting tools.

“I think the reluctance comes from [a lack of] training and knowledge about what the system can do,” he emphasises. “There’s often a misunderstanding that a system – say telematics – will increase your workload. But if it is used properly, it makes you more efficient in your operations, and ensures you’re using your time in a better way.”

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