The future of wearable technology for the construction industry conjures up images of workers covered in clunky machinery—hydraulically powered exosuits multiplying the wearers’ strength, while gleaming visors with information-dense heads-up displays block their vision. But companies looking to bring more wearable tech to the jobsite are focusing on getting their innovations into workers’ existing gear to boost adoption. As a result, in the near future, construction workers may find that common assets, such as hardhats, safety vests and even the tools they carry, are being infused with new capabilities.

Article Index:

The Smart Hardhat

Packing advanced technology into the standard hardhat is the goal of California-based firm Daqri. The firm’s Smart Helmet looks as if it were a traditional hardhat but features a clear visor that can display 3D visual overlays in the wearer’s field of view. It also features a 360° wireless camera, allowing a full view of the worker’s surroundings. The system is capable of a form of augmented reality (AR), also called “mixed reality,” in which images can be made to appear dynamically on surfaces in the surrounding environment. Designed primarily for industrial work, the Daqri helmet also may aid construction workers on the jobsite. But with a price tag a few hundreds dollars above an ordinary hardhat’s, it remains a premium item.

Still, major construction-equipment manufacturers expect these technologies to arrive in the industry in the near future. “We’re looking at all sorts of wearables, mixed reality, geofencing, collision-detection systems,” says George Taylor, a vice president at Caterpillar Inc. “Like the Daqri helmet—with that visor that can display an overlay of information mapped to what you’re seeing—[there’s a] lot of potential for things like that.”

While Caterpillar has yet to unveil its own wearable tech, Taylor thinks AR may change how users work with equipment. “Unlike a virtual-reality [VR] system, mixed reality allows someone to be in their environment. [It] superimposes information, so they know what to touch and how to perform tasks,” he says. “Just think about a technician’s productivity: If you can improve it by 10%—and we think of that figure across our dealer network—the amount of relief that would give us is substantial. Because it’s hard to find good technicians.”

Building a Safer Safety Vest

Getting wearable tech into construction workers’ existing wardrobe is easier than convincing them to put on another bit of gear. Safety vests are commonplace on jobsites, and technology firms are looking to bake their innovations into standard gear. For example, Red Point Positioning has been using GPS-enabled safety vests to track worker locations across crowded jobsites (ENR 10/19 p. 53). When working within a geofenced jobsite, workers can be located to within 8 in. of precision.

Skanska USA ran trials of the Red Point worker-location system on a Boston project, and the results impressed Tony Colonna, senior vice president at the firm. “We see that a GPS-type positioning system can monitor people relative to equipment or keep [them] out of danger zones,” Colonna told ENR. “You can have real-time feedback and know how much real manpower is being delivered to different sites on the construction site.”

Tightly controlled, sensor-laden jobsites can be made to work with wearables, but what about a construction setting that’s a bit more chaotic, such as a busy highway project? Tom Martin, a Virginia Tech electrical and computer engineering professor, saw a chance to improve road-crew worker safety when the university undertook a study of semi-autonomous vehicles with the Virginia Dept. of Transportation.

Dedicated short-range communication (DSRC) systems allow newer vehicles to communicate with each other via radio signals. These systems are expected to form the backbone of future semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicle systems. Martin and his graduate students wondered if that same technology could be adapted into a wearable version for construction workers. “Within five to 10 years, most cars on the road will have these DSRC systems, with GPS on the cars and radios able to communicate with other cars.” he says. “We wanted to see if [we could] use it to give road workers a little advance warning.”

The result is the InZoneAlert safety vest, which has the same DSRC system as the cars but rebuilt to a form factor that can be worn comfortably. Tests conducted by Martin’s team have shown that workers and cars can be reliably alerted to each other’s presence, presenting the possibility that driverless and semi-autonomous vehicles could one day be programmed to automatically avoid construction workers.

“We started with the safety vest, since we knew they were already required,” recalls Martin. “We needed to fit into what the worker already wears, otherwise there will be less compliance.”

Scattering wearables across the jobsite will yield smarter results, Martin says. “Instead of one big wearable, you need to be thinking of lots of little devices talking to each other,” says Martin, who has been researching and developing wearable technology since the 1990s. “For construction, these technologies will have to be incorporated into what’s on the jobsite. They’re going to have to fit into the way people are already using their equipment and clothing.”

A prototype of the InZoneAlert vest was put to the test on mock-ups of road construction sites, with

intelligent cars zooming by. “We were able to show with the initial feasibility study that a vehicle traveling 45 mph in a straight line could give a road worker five to six seconds of warning that a car was coming right at them,” says Martin. Like any warning system, Martin and his team were concerned about false alarms desensitizing workers. “There were some minor inaccuracies, but, even with that, we were able to distinguish clearly between vehicles being in-lane, half a lane away or a lane away,” he says. In early tests, the prototype vest performed with over 90% accuracy.

Martin originally developed the InZoneAlert feasibility study with graduate student Jason Forsythe, now a professor at York College in Pennsylvania. Martin now is working with graduate student Kristin Hines to develop the vest further. “Right now, we wouldn’t deploy the vest since very few cars on the road use DSRC. But within five to 10 years, most cars on the road are going to have these systems. So, if we can establish the feasibility of the vest now, it can be ready by then,” he says.

New Realities in Design Workflows

While VR and AR visors are still rare sights on the jobsite, the technology already is being deployed in the design phase. Architectural firms are finding uses for VR and AR headsets beyond impressing clients with virtual walkthroughs.

“It’s something that we’re actively involved in,” says Alan Robles, associate at Gensler in charge of interactive design. “We’re engaging the makers of these technologies, and we’re using our own projects as test beds.” Robles oversees the deployment of VR and AR tech within Gensler from the firm’s Los Angeles office and is even employing it in the ongoing redesign of that office. “Our L.A. office is kind of a living lab, an experimentation environment. As we develop the next iteration of our office space, we’re using VR tech to internally vet our perspectives and explore possible design changes.”

According to Robles, VR also is being used by Gensler to design the Culver City Creative Campus in California. “This building will feature operable exterior glazed surfaces, and VR lets us evaluate how those systems will look and function.” A Gensler team also is using VR in the renovation of the lobby of the U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles to examine alternative designs.

Gensler also has deployed its VR headsets among multiple users to explore design files together. “We’ve done experiments with video-game engines, [such as] Unity and Unreal, to test use cases for how we can implement them as part of projects. We’ve been able to develop a live collaborative environment, essentially a multiplayer game. People at separate locations log in with wearables like the Oculus Rift [VR headset], have live meetings in a virtual space and have different discussions about components of design, evaluating our physical experience of the design.”

Major VR platforms such as the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive are a hot target for tech firms hoping to build the software that will link VR to design and construction workflows. IrisVR is a New York City-based firm focused on getting the most commonly used design file formats compatible with these platforms. Architects and engineers will be able to load up their Revit files into the headset and refine their model from within. “This can be used as a design tool,” says George Valdes, vice president of products at IrisVR. “You’re not just looking at the model. It’s a design review. You can do markups in VR, capture images from whatever you’re looking at in VR and export that metadata back into your workflow.”

Valdes admits the VR experience is still not perfect, but he says the real challenge is educating architects, engineers and other industry professionals about how far the technology has come in just a few years. “We’re focusing on extracting 5D data from Revit and other kinds of files in order to optimize the geometry and make the overall VR experience as smooth as possible. But it’s the interactivity that will take this beyond pretty walkthroughs.”

Waiting for the Robot Power Suit

Powered exoskeletons, or “exosuits,” have been in development for decades, with many prototypes shown off for military and medical uses. One current manufacturer is Ekso Bionics, which has a lightweight, powered harness that the firm has said could one day aid construction laborers in lifting heavy loads and reducing strain and risk of injuries. But that is still a potential application, as exoskeleton manufacturers such as Ekso primarily target their products to the health-care sector.

One tech firm is taking a different approach to getting exosuits onto the jobsite. “We decided to disrupt a large category in the construction industry,” says Arron Acosta, CEO of Rise Robotics. His startup firm has been researching possible uses for its Cyclone Piston technology, a mechanically driven energy-storage system that Acosta helped to develop as a student. The lightweight, cable-driven piston originally was designed to store energy to power an exosuit for workers lifting heavy loads. But following the trend in wearables, Rise Robotics is looking to enhance an existing tool on the jobsite, rather than invent a new platform.

“We looked at the common tasks on the construction site to see where this technology could fit in, and we kept coming back to the general contractor’s portable air compressor,” says Acosta. “We applied our cycling-cable piston to air compression, and we’ve developed one that fills five times faster. Our pump-up time [to 125 psi] is 23 seconds, with a recovery time of seven seconds.” Acosta also notes that preliminary testing has shown that the firm’s piston-driven air compressor has a quieter operation than a traditional air compressor, generating only 61 db.

Acosta thinks replacing a standard piece of gear is his firm’s Trojan Horse into the jobsite. “Right now, we’re targeting nailing applications—pneumatic nailers for framing, flooring and finishing trim. We’re hoping to niche ourselves into being the carpenter’s best friend.”

When it is introduced later this year, the finished product, known as the Robotic Air Compressor, will be light enough to be worn like a backpack. “We want to allow air tools to go fully cordless.”

An air compressor light enough to sling on your back is technically wearable, but Acosta sees it as a first step toward fully powered suits. “We think that, by 2018, materials-handling exosuits will be worn by contractors and builders to pick up packs of concrete, loads of shingles—really, for any heavy lifting. But, before then, we believe they occasionally will be wearing their air compressor, and that that may be able to later serve as the power plant for a wearable suit’s pistons.”