In 2014, Komatsu, the world’s second-largest construction company based in Japan, took about two weeks to collect high-precision data on an average project site. Back then, drones utilising manual mission planners were still inefficient.
A group of entrepreneurs embarked on a journey to find a solution to this pressing problem, which is elaborated on in the Climatic talk show’s first episode.
“We needed to be able to deploy over 10,000 sites in a matter of months, and it was nearly impossible to do it with drones. So we set ourselves to solve this problem,” Christian Sanz, CEO of US-based Skycatch, a provider of drone data solutions for the construction and mining industry.
In 2014, Skycatch announced a partnership with Komatsu. Thanks to its technology, surveying Komatsu construction sites has become easier and it takes only 20 minutes.
Pain points of a conservative industry
The construction industry’s efficiency has been on the decline for the past several decades. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, the efficiency has fallen by half since the late 1960s for various reasons, the biggest being the skilled labour shortage.
“Construction sites are very complicated,” said Thomas Abell, chief of digital technology for the development unit at Asian Development Bank, which deploys a multitude of construction projects across the Asia Pacific.
“They have a lot of material. They also have high requirements to manage the design tolerances,” he added. “So you need to send people who understand what’s happening with the materials and equipment to the project sites.”
Even before the emergence of the pandemic, builders couldn’t keep up with the rapid urbanisation in every corner of the world. And COVID-19 has changed things for the worse. As construction picks up pace after a tumultuous year, workers struggle to return to work and meet the growing demand.
“Normally, you send consultants or project officers to the sites to monitor the projects. But the pandemic has made it impossible,” explained Abell.
According to new research of the Associated Builders and Contractors of America (ABC), the US alone needs to hire 430,000 more workers to meet the increasing demand for construction services in 2021. This quarter, 88 per cent of contractors say they’re having a hard time recruiting skilled labour. Newly designed machines and robots are urgently required to fill this gap.
According to Skycatch CEO, the construction industry faces a shortage of skilled labour and lacks automation machinery. Besides, fragmented processes in construction and constant human errors are also posing challenges.
“One single error could cost a half a million-dollar repair. Plus, it takes two weeks of redesign, causing more material to be delivered on the site. It means more waste and more CO2 emission,” said Sanz.
It’s common knowledge that CO2 contributes mainly to climate change. Statistics from the UN’s 2017 Global Status Report show that buildings and construction account for approximately 40 per cent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions.
There is a clear link between the amount of machinery used, the material delivered and environmental fallout, or how much CO2 is released into the atmosphere when construction is in progress.
“If we can reduce one day of construction, it makes an impact on the environment as it reduces CO2 emission. It also makes the whole process more efficient,” Sanz explained.
Efficiency coupled with climate change mitigation
Experts have pointed out several significant global innovative construction trends, including the ability to capture the real world in a detailed digital model, or digital twins; the production of smarter, better, lower-carbon materials; and the management of the construction ecosystem surrounding self-contractors, contractors, and planners.
Some startups have been forging ahead with innovative solutions for construction planning and data analytics.
In 2014, Skycatch first collaborated with Komatsu to generate high precision data at construction sites through its drone technology. The startup enables its partners, including Komatsu, to see minor details of the sites inside out and track them efficiently.
Another synergy between Skycatch and big corporations is in the infrastructure investment of ADB in Port of Nauru, where the supervision was done remotely through Skycatch’s daily 3D model of the actual site that can be used instead of physical surveillance.
“The other thing is that most of the analysis takes place after the mistakes,” Abell said. “What we’re doing at Skycatch is we’re building technology for you to see the mistake before you even install anything.”
For example, Skycatch’s drone data and analytics track change over time across dams, reducing industrial accidents. When combined with sensors and IoT devices like piezometers and inclinometers, the tailings dam engineers get a far larger digital picture of potential mishaps to solve.
Bangkok-headquartered construction-tech company Builk One Group, which has just closed its Series B+ round, also provides a range of SaaS products. They include business management services and online construction material trading platforms to enable firms in Thailand and ASEAN to digitalise their construction projects. It has also developed a technology for construction sites to enhance operational efficiency and reduce errors.
“We can use these technologies in planning. We can also use them in the actual construction more efficiently, leveraging materials more quickly, locating issues, turning around projects more quickly, and even doing projects in more financially efficient ways as well,” Abell added.
This practice also presents a massive opportunity for startups to support the industry in realising physical climate risks, according to Hara Wang, investment director at the nonprofit climate tech accelerator-cum-investment fund Third Derivative.
“They can help the building and construction sector in better understanding and monitoring the performance of construction and infrastructure projects, especially when the risk of heat and flooding increases as a result of climate change,” said Wang.
British multinational professional services firm, Arup, has created machine learning technology in Shanghai as part of a project to address the city’s rising flood and river pollution problems.
Since 1990, climate change and Shanghai’s tripling population has put the city at higher environmental risk. Arup has employed satellite images and a machine-learning algorithm to map parts of the landscape, identifying “green” infrastructure and maximising the potential of the existing network before deploying any new construction projects.
Technology has helped in building infrastructure in cleaner, greener, and significantly more climate-friendly.
Asia’s smart construction at the forefront
According to an ADB report, Asia is expected to contribute roughly 60 per cent to global growth by 2030. As per The World Data Lab’s figures, nearly 90 per cent of the 2.4 billion new middle-class members will be in the region.
As construction is also the inevitable companion to economic development, Daniel Hersson, senior fund manager at Asian Development Bank’s ADB Ventures, believes that most of the world’s new infrastructure and building expansion will thus likely occur in Asia.
“Asia is the big market for many, many solutions,” said Hersson. “You can’t avoid that. Not only most of the growth but also most of the opportunities will be in Asia.”
Hara Wang echoed this viewpoint. She says she has witnessed that Asia is more exposed to physical climate risk than any other part of the world. However, it is still the ideal location for taking advantage of decarbonisation prospects.
“It’s also critically important that we have this climate adaptation and climate resilience mindset for this new phase of infrastructure build down in Asia,” added Wang.
As the region is home to some emerging hard-tech advancements from China, India, and some regions of Southeast Asia, Wang emphasised that Asia is no longer just the implementation place but puts itself at the forefront of the world’s fundamental technology developments.
But when it comes to the symbiotic relationship between construction companies and technology startups, it’s about the technology and getting people to accept and choose to utilise it.
“A large company like Komatsu with decades of experience can achieve efficiency if it works with a fast-growing startup like SkycatchThat’s where we see a lot of value being created,” said Hersson of ADB Ventures.
Nori Onodera, who leads the smart construction solutions company Earthbrain, a spin-off from Komatsu, stated that construction corporations face challenges in figuring out exactly what pieces of technology are required to hit the goal.
“Some of the technologies are already in existence today, so it’s just a matter of implementation; some of the technologies don’t quite exist yet, especially technologies for them to cover these emissions, not coming from power consumption or transportation consumption,” Wang explained.
The inflexion point lies in the globalisation of the innovation ecosystem, which is not just from the perspective of startups and technology but also other collaborators at the borders of startups, corporates, policy-making networks and investors.
“It’s not just about startups themselves; it is actually about the innovation ecosystem built around each technology,” she said. “It takes a dance globally to make it work.”
Image credit: 123rf
Image credit: 123rf
Image credit: 123rf
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