Oculus Rift

As head of Boston-based Suffolk Construction's 18-month-old national R&D group, Jason Seaburg leads a team searching for new technologies that may become standard tools on company jobsites. His excitement is infectious, says Corren Collura, chief information officer. "Colleagues really buy into it and want to partner with him," she says.

Recent explorations include drones, thermal imaging cameras, Google Glass, and still and video cameras on extenders to examine hard-to-reach locations.

The 12-member R&D group investigates and recommends the most promising proposals for testing during biweekly conference calls. It works to keep costs within an R&D budget set at the start of the fiscal year. Suffolk declines to divulge the amount, but Seaburg and Collura review and sign off on purchases.

When a technology is selected, "the pilot lead is responsible for managing cost, with oversight from me," Collura says. Oversight is essential, adds Seaburg. "There needs to be someone who will answer to the [R&D] group and report results so we can tell if the investment is worth it."

Having clear expectations and a timeline also is important, adds Seaburg. "You don't want to implement 50 drones without a set of sound processes. You can leverage a couple [of drones] initially so people can get comfortable."

The group records work using the online tool Evernote to store text, photos and graphs, says team member Jonathan Linehan, a preconstruction manager and R&D group captain for the Northeast. He says the site keeps a running list, vetted weekly, of all suggestions throughout the company. "Each beta test has its own file indicating the project team and a beta-test description," he says.

And when a technology doesn't pan out, the team knows when to pull the plug, adds Seaburg. "We beta-tested Google Glass but couldn't find a practical use." Testing it in South Boston, a safety manager wanted to document conditions the team could review live and discuss, but the technology was "very buggy," says Seaburg. The manager had trouble initiating video calls since, without a strong connection and only 30 minutes of battery life, the glasses would shut down. "You can't really browse the web and can only access things via Google Drive," he says.

Recent experimentation has taken place during construction of a $280- million, 620,000-sq-ft research and clinical building at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital. "[Seaburg] has been able to leverage technology to create efficiencies that save time and money and really make an impression on the client," says Collura.

Trials included use of $1,300 drones to view welds on bracing that is deep in an excavation for a slurry wall. "It worked well, but we're just getting a sense of how to fly the drones. They crashed inside a deep [excavation] hole a couple of times," says Seaburg, adding that the operators need to be mindful of risk, especially flying near a hospital. "Timing, communication and permission is important," he says.

Seaburg adds that Suffolk is not overly concerned about the Federal Aviation Administration's yet-to-be- adopted rules for commercial drone operations. He believes the FAA is focused on larger, military-grade drones. "The construction industry is operating in the gray area," he says.