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Game of Drones: Tomorrow’s Job Site

Friday, March 7, 2014

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Drones, all the rage for everything from missile strikes to package delivery, may soon be keeping an eye on you—if not replacing you—at work.

But they will have your best interests at heart.

Construction and engineering giant Balfour Beatty, one of the world's largest infrastructure contractors, is reportedly considering using drones to build walls, monitor employees' "stress and bodily functions," and improve project efficiency.

"Gamification" (using people, not drones) of safety practices may also be on the horizon, Balfour Beatty CIO Danny Reeves suggested in an interview with Techworld.

USNavy Drones
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Katerine Noll

Sailors prepare drones aboard the USS Tortuga before an air defense gunnery exercise in 2011. Drones are finding new purposes outside the military.

Fresh off a $72 million deal with Fujitsu to streamline and upgrade its global IT operation, Balfour Beatty is weighing a variety of "pie in the sky" ideas to transform tomorrow's megaproject sites, Reeves said.

For example, he told Techworld, before long, you may see drones:

Inspecting highways. “We have guys that have to work on the motorways in the central reservations," Reeves said. "It’s inherently dangerous work, and people do get hurt.

"If we could chuck up a drone and it could scan a whole central reservation and no one has to cross a road or park a van on a hard shoulder, that would be great.”

Monitoring sprawling job sites. Fleets of drones could be dispatched over large sites, reducing communication errors and checking progress at far-flung locations, Reeves said.

Building walls. “They just fly around and build a wall,” Reeves said of videos he'd seen showing wall-building drones in action. “That takes a lot of the human error and human safety issues out. Those are technologies we’re quite keen to get an understanding of."

Telling you to take a break. Reeves said Balfour Beatty was also looking at incorporating “body area networks” into its work sites. The networks consist of wearable devices that monitor heart rate, stress levels, hydration and other bodily functions.

Amazon caused a stir in December with its announcement of its mini-drone-powered Amazon Prime Air system. Facebook is also looking at acquiring a drone maker for high-altitude hot spots.

The devices "could alert management when individual workers' stress or fatigue levels make them ineffective on the job, or even a danger to themselves and others," blogs Technology Advice.

Said Reeves, “We have people working up pylons, and we need to know those guys are able to think straight and that they’re not overly stressed.

“The environments we have people working in can be quite harsh, so we have to monitor them and monitor the individual to be able to predict when they may become less effective or even potentially dangerous to themselves and others.”

Balfour Beatty's revenue for 2012 was about $17 billion, with an operating income near $500 million, putting a fleet of construction drones well within its means, Technology Advice notes.

'Gamification' of Safety

Meanwhile, non-drone technology is also inviting new safety incentives and possibilities, said Reeves.

He suggested, for example, a game that awards points for following steps, conducting pre-work safety checks, identifying areas of risk, and developing options to reduce the risk.

“Compliance and audit of your environment is important, but bits of paper and process is dull as hell,” said Reeves.

'Grumpy Old Git'

Although a self-described "grumpy old git" by nature, Reeves said Balfour Beatty's new relationship with Fujitsu could transform the large-scale construction sites of the future.

The partnership "is a huge opportunity for us to get our heads out of the day-to-day desktop, laptop, and servers and start to challenge our industry and our customers about what technology can do for us," he told Techworld.

"We’ll go through a process over the next year or so to funnel it down to those things that are feasible, realistic and what we can do now, medium term and long term."


Tagged categories: Construction; Health and safety; Infrastructure; Workers

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