Automated systems in construction could have a crucial role to play in a changing economic landscape

By Matt Smith, associate head of School of Energy, Geoscience, Infrastructure and Society, Heriot-Watt University Dubai.


Automation and remote systems are trending in several industries today. They offer several benefits – an easy way to execute tasks to enhance efficiency, cost savings and improve the safety of workers. These benefits apply to the construction industry as well.

The construction and contracting Industry in the UAE is forecast to increase at a CAGR of 8.5%, from $36 bn in 2014 to $63.8 bn in 2021 according to an industry research report by Dun & Bradstreet. However, the current Coronavirus crisis has changed the business landscape in many ways. The pandemic has caused business closures, curfews, travel bans, financial market upheavals and manufacturing shutdowns. Some of the measures aimed at combating this crisis have also indirectly affected the UAE construction industry. As such, now is a good time for construction businesses to consider automation in a bid to counter recent challenges.

Matt Smith, associate head of School of Energy, Geoscience, Infrastructure and Society, Heriot-Watt University Dubai.

In fact, the spectrum for automation in the construction industry is wide, ranging from planning to operating to maintaining the final structure. According to the International Federation of Robotics and the Robotic Industries Association, the construction robotics market will experience a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.7% between 2018 and 2022.

Let’s examine ways by which the construction industry can benefit from automation and remote systems, especially during these unprecedented times.

Use of autonomous machines on the construction site

As a work environment, construction sites are characterized by a great degree of variability in day-to-day operations. People and machines work in close proximity on varying construction tasks, and a single workday includes a multitude of tasks, some of which could be hazardous and require enormous physical exertion. The use of autonomous machines can be very useful here. These self-driving machines can be used to transport materials across the work site, haul heavy items and move constructions materials without posing a risk to workers. For example, existing machines such as forklifts and trucks can be fitted with robotic technology solutions and sensors which enable self-operation without a driver in the cabin. This technology programmes such vehicles to follow a particular route and allows for provision of GPS capabilities.

Advantages of using monitoring drones

The process of mapping a construction site used to be laborious as well as expensive. Traditionally, construction companies undertaking large projects had to hire a plane to fly over their large sites and take photographs which were crucial to planning and analysis. Drones however permit automated monitoring of worksites without the need for active supervision. Other benefits are they can be programmed to conduct pre-project inspections, monitor construction progress through photos once work has started, scan the working area for any potential hazards and fly to remote areas in a much shorter time. For example, bridge inspection companies have discovered that the use of drones is the best way to complete inspections of structures that are close to the water. Drones are growing in popularity due to the fact that they provide an aerial view of a site in a simplified and budget-friendly manner.

Automating concrete works

Concrete is produced in the batching plant, by mixing up an aggregate of sand, gravel and cement along with moisture. This mix is then subjected to extreme temperatures to create the end product. Manually mixing this aggregate brings its own share of problems – weighing individual components and mixing them is rarely accurate and has scope for error. In an automated plant however, mixers mix contents evenly without clumps or clots and water is added in fixed proportions while temperature is regulated automatically. The single biggest benefit of automated concrete mixing is to reduce material consumption and avoid errors which commonly occur in manual plants thereby leading to substandard quality of concrete.

Use of IoT sensors 

The Internet of Things or IoT is allowing for the deployment of simple low power sensors that are able to communicate cost-effectively and make automation possible. IoT today has plenty impact on the construction industry in several ways to improve outcome. For example, they enable the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and autonomous vehicles for monitoring and surveillance especially for construction projects which span huge spaces. With the use of IoT construction companies can undertake real-time tracking and the use of cloud-based data to reduce theft, increase productivity and control costs. In the area of concrete curing, IoT sensors are embedded in concrete during casting which transmit data on curing progress, which allows the construction manager to monitor and plan schedules with certainty. And finally, IoT has applications in waste management, a critical consideration on a modern construction site, especially in light of the fact that health hazards are today being closely monitored.

Robots for construction 

According to a report by MarketWatch, the global robotics market is expected to increase at 28.51% CAGR. Valued at $43million in 2018, it is expected to reach $181,028.6 million by 2024. It has several applications across various industries, and while the construction industry is some way behind in the use of robots, robotic construction systems are now being considered in some parts of the world. The advantages are many – robots can be very precise, work 24 x 7 in a wide range of conditions, eliminate the need for humans and related labour problems and can work in spaces unsafe for humans, or on the facades of tall buildings without facing vertigo. This could make them much cheaper and more reliable than conventional construction in the long run. Some kinds of construction robots offering useful application are 3D-printing robots to build large buildings on demand, construction robots for brick-laying and masonry and demolition robots that are used for demolishing concrete and structural components of a building at the end of its lifecycle.

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