By Mark Holan, editorial director, ARTBA
Editor’s Note: This story appears in the July/August issue of ARTBA’s Transportation Builder magazine.
Artificial intelligence (AI) and other advanced technologies are not far-in-the-future aids to transportation design and construction. It’s already on the job.
On the Koppel Bridge decking project near Pittsburgh, an autonomous rebar-tying robot sped the operation and reduced labor needs. Instead of splitting crews between placing, framing, and bulk tying the deck’s reinforcing steel, the contractor adjusted the work plan by focusing their preparation of larger areas as the automated robot worked uninterrupted over 125,250 horizontal rebar intersections.
“Currently, AI is trying to work its way into the existing work crews, equipment, and planning,” says Carson T. Carney, vice president of sales & technology integration at TyBot, LLC, and a convention panelist. “Eventually this will flip, and the industry will adapt the crews, equipment, and planning to maximize the benefits of AI.”
Potentially, infrastructure designs will be adapted to accommodate AI and other technology, and largely for the same reason the construction industry has made earlier changes: economics.
At ARTBA’s 2019 National Convention, business and other thought leaders and industry experts will discuss how AI, robotics, and automation are impacting the services offered by transportation design and construction firms; the workforce they recruit and develop, and how they interact with customers. This article previews the discussion to come.
Amber MacArthur, president of digital media company AmberMac Media, Inc. and the convention’s keynote speaker, says there are dozens of ways AI will impact the construction industry, including better systems to keep large projects on budget; as well as logistics, customer-relations, management support, workflow automation, human resources, and finance.
“The best opportunity for construction businesses to leverage AI in the near future is to integrate new tools and technologies that allow for work to be done smarter, faster, and more data-driven,” MacArthur says.
Tom Webb, vice president of strategic initiatives and customer relations at HCSS, will moderate a key panel of industry experts.
“We will look at comparable industries and see the impact already realized in those industries, discover where investment is happening in our industry today, and discuss where we expect this to be going in the short, mid, and long-term,” he says.
Webb asks attendees to prepare for the session—and really the whole convention—by asking themselves these questions: What could robotics be used for within our company? Where do I see artificial intelligence used today? What do I know about Blockchain? How can we use devices from the Internet of Things? How tech-ready are our newer employees compared to our traditional employees? What do our customers expect from us with technology?
Convention speaker Ross Smith, director of Skype for Good at Microsoft and one of the nation’s top innovation thought leaders, notes the number of workers displaced by technology is growing across industries, including transportation construction.
“Over the last few decades, design and build processes have leveraged technologies such as CAD/CAM,” he says. “Looking ahead, 3D modeling, 3D printed structures,
autonomous construction vehicles, radio-frequency identification (RFID), and sensors all have the potential to disrupt traditional processes.”
And processes impact the workforce. The construction industry is currently coping with a significant gap between workforce availability and demand.
“There is no expectation that this disparity will be resolved through increased availability, so we must resolve the situation by making the workforce more productive,” Carney says. “Automation allows the existing workers to be more productive.”
It also will keep them safer.
“Robots perform the same work while removing the workers from exposure to high risk activities,” says TyBot’s Carney. “The less manhours that are expended to perform high risk activities,
the better safety performance contractors will achieve.”
Smith and MacArthur, who each work outside the construction industry, also emphasize technology’s role in safety for workers and the public that use the transportation systems they build.
Panelist Jim Peterson, design build director & senior vice president, HNTB Corporation, warns that these changes won’t happen overnight.
“We have skilled operators throughout the industry,” he says. “Any change to a machine doing it without a person in the cab, or a machine back in the office controlling the equipment in the field, will take time.”
Peterson also says human project managers will continue to play a vital role, deploying AI and other technology as tools, as they continue to “run the projects and not let the projects run them.”
Still, he acknowledges that workforce will be impacted as some tasks shift to automated processes.
Lane Construction Corp. Vice President Engineering Andy Kaiyala agrees. “New personnel with new technical training will be required, and leadership that can embrace the elimination of paper documents as the contract deliverable and move toward a model-centric contract will also be required. There will be an expansion of the hiring pool into additional technical areas,” Kaiyala said.
Peterson and Kaiyala see the benefits of autonomous vehicles and other technology on the nation’s (and world’s) transportation infrastructure system. Vehicles will travel “faster and closer to one another, moving more goods and people through any corridor,” Peterson said. Commerce will be scheduled to move off peak through dense metro areas, or routed around commuter congestion.
The ability to “virtually” construct projects using 3D, 4D and 5D data will radically alter construction planning, said Kaiyala. “This alteration comes with an upfront cost of planning, and delayed ‘bucket in the ground’ execution, but at the same time yields more specific information on which to base the realworld planning and execution of complex tasks.”
“Some of these are incremental changes, some may move rapidly,” Peterson added.
Convention speaker Russell McMurry, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation, isn’t waiting. His agency is busy deploying 1,700 traffic signals that will communicate with autonomous vehicles about changing signals, adjusting speed, and alerting pedestrians.
“The opportunities in front of us to improve safety by embracing technology are huge,” McMurry says. “The use of AI will greatly enhance construction where our workforce doesn’t currently exist.”