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Drones are able to record detailed topographical images of construction sites which can be used to produce 3D models of the site

Digging into the potential of 5G – By Kate Tulp

In August, Vodafone set the stage for ushering in a new era of connectivity across New Zealand, announcing a commercial rollout of 5G, the fifth-generation mobile network. The initial rollout is slated for December across parts of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown.

While this technology will augment the digital experience Kiwis have on their personal devices, it also offers a range of new commercial opportunities, especially across the construction sector. This article will explore just a few of these exciting prospects.

Remote-controlled innovation

Within the construction industry, 5G as a faster and more responsive mobile network opens up great potential for processing mobile data – for example, machines to be operated and managed remotely. Recently, at the leading construction machinery trade fair Bauma 2019, held in Munich, Germany, the South Korean firm Doosan demonstrated the use of 5G technology for remote control of construction equipment.

From a control station on its stand at the exhibition, the team from Doosan operated one of their 40 tonne crawler excavators located more than 8500 km away in Incheon, South Korea. The control station in Munich was equipped with 3D machine guidance, real-time diagnostics, and a full-gauge display system.

Doosan is the first manufacturer to use 5G technology for worldwide teleoperation of construction machines

This was an impressive demonstration since the machine was being remotely controlled across continents and with a time difference of eight hours – a testament to the power of 5G’s ultra-low latency or, in other words, almost real-time responsiveness. This system, now dubbed ‘teleoperation’, delivers reliable live video streaming at the operator’s remote station via a 5G network. The result is a remote operator now has the same real-time, accurate control of the excavator as an operator would have had they been physically sitting in the excavator’s cab.

Getting a bird’s eye view

Construction sites can be a complex labyrinth of above and below-ground activity. Being able to map, monitor and automate movement of critical machinery is key to the operational success of a site. An emerging component of this kind of mapping is above-ground drones.

These drones are now being used to record detailed topographical images of construction sites. These images can then be used to produce 3D models of the site. To deliver such high-end video, these drones now rely on the high bandwidth and ultra-low latency of 5G to record and transmit large volumes of complex data.

Going forward, the footage from these drones can be used to create augmented reality walkthroughs of construction sites for supervisors. It could even be used to produce virtual reality models that allow management teams to assess performance and suggest necessary improvements.

Keeping workers safe

Through Internet of Things (IoT) technologies powered by 5G, autonomous systems can now be used to monitor noise and fugitive dust. In the past, measurements like these had to be carried out physically onsite which had the potential to compromise the health and safety of an employee. But by using 5G, an IoT noise and dust measuring instrument can simply be placed at the perimeter of the construction site, and readings can be monitored in real time through this system.

Equipment itself has the potential to cause severe accidents onsite. Using 5G, systems such as Samsung C&T’s Smart Equipment Management System for Safety (SEMSS) can help mitigate this risk. When the system detects danger – for example, if a driver operates machinery differently than expected, a worker attempts to lift excessively heavy materials, or there is a sudden change in weather – those real-time signals can be relayed to a manager remotely via 5G in near-real time.

IoT devices can also be used to monitor the safety of equipment by performing a test and receiving remote approval before operation.

Simplifying work in an emergency

Teleoperation can also be used to operate excavators in dangerous applications such as industrial waste disposal involving hazardous, toxic, or radioactive substances. By limiting the physical distance between these dangerous substances and the machine operator, 5G can help create a safer working environment.

Using 5G for autonomous vehicle control is also useful for work on collapsing waste piles, and in areas where there are buried mines and other munitions. In such situations, even the smallest error can lead to catastrophic results with the operator being trapped or injured. By carrying out these jobs remotely, 5G helps ease the mental workload of the operator (who is no longer preoccupied by his personal safety) thus allowing him to focus on the task at hand more efficiently.

Drones are able to record detailed topographical images of construction sites which can be used to produce 3D models of the site

5G is also proving to be very useful in trials where heavy machinery has to be operated in the event of a natural disaster. A trial in December 2018 at the Aigawa Dam construction site in Ibaraki, Osaka, saw 5G technology being used to remotely control two construction machines – a backhoe and a crawler loader. Four cameras – three 2K forward cameras and one omnidirectional camera – were installed on each machine to transmit images and sound data in real time.

Given that fibre-optic lines are most often unavailable at disaster sites, the 5G base station and the remote control room, separated by about 750 m, were connected via a wireless entrance network, demonstrating that 5G could still be functional and mission-capable even after a natural disaster.

Virtual jobsites enabling faster skill transfer

Japanese industrial machinery company Kobelco is also currently developing a ‘site telework sharing’ concept for construction sites. Using the power of 5G, this concept involves creating a network system for jobsites and construction machines using a remote cockpit. This will allow contractors to establish and recruit operators from other countries.

This also means that contractors can select operators based on their specific experience and skills, rather than their proximity to the site. As a result, operators could have access to any jobsite, anywhere in the world, without being restricted by location.

Harnessing the potential of the 5G network

In summary, 5G has vast potential across multiple facets of the construction industry. Its near-real-time delivery of high-definition video enables the operation of autonomous vehicles, the real-time monitoring of underground and outdoor premises, remote diagnostics and predictive maintenance, as well as asset management, control and authentication.

In addition, by enabling remote usability of machinery, especially in hazardous conditions, it can help fulfil the industry’s ambitions of delivering zero emissions, zero accidents and zero unplanned stops.

I believe all that’s left for us to do is dig deeper as we discover more ways to make 5G serve the construction industry even further.

Drawing on more than 20 years’ experience in business, IT and telecommunications, Kate Tulp is the head of corporate and global enterprise, New Zealand, at Vodafone Business

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