Top Technology Trends to Watch in Civil Engineering 2016

Arkit Civil Engineering • Technology • 11 minute read

Civil engineering has always readily adopted new technologies, using innovations like suspension systems to build bridges and GPS to plot new roads. And as technology continues to evolve, we can expect that the civil engineering field will only keep incorporating this new technology in increasingly creative ways. In fact, it already is. New technologies – those that have been released within the last 5 years – are about to change the civil engineering field and allow innovations previously not possible. So what are some of the big technological advances we can expect in civil engineering this year? Here are just a few developments that are likely to unfold.

Drones: Advanced Mapping and Scanning Capacities for More Accurate Visualizations

Civil engineering is ripe with applications for unmanned aerial vehicles, which can aid in scanning and mapping work sites as well as capturing photos and videos for promotional purposes. UAVs often represent a cost-saving measure for businesses that need aerial mapping, as a drone doesn't require a pilot, but rather, a programmer. UAVs are also easy to program to fly multiple times around the same worksite, which means in the future, firms will be able to capture a variety of images and videos while the project is being completed – and that will enable firms to better manage project progress.

UAVs will also revolutionize civil engineering through the use of photoscanning, an image capture process that uses photos (rather than lasers) to capture images. Photoscanning captures not just the ground surface, but also buildings, plants, benches, and other nearby structures – and represents them in three dimensions. With these advanced capabilities, drones will allow for more accurate and more interactive 3D representations of civil engineering projects.

The primary disadvantage of drone use in civil engineering is the initial capital expense required to purchase drones and train pilots, however, the cost is expected to decline over time. There are also potential issues involving FAA regulations, citizens' right to privacy, and how liability insurance would address drone usage.

3D Printing: Marrying Design and Construction

3D printing is gaining a lot of ground not just among hobbyists, but also in business – and with 3D printers coming down in price each year, it's not long before we'll see them used in civil engineering. 3D printing offers benefits for both design and construction, essentially tying the two processes together. With 3D printing, it's easy to design custom construction supplies and then build them using nearly any kind of material imaginable. In fact, 3D printers are already in use in construction projects in Europe. Dutch construction company Heijmans – most well known for its "smart highway" and its glowing bicycle paths, which use luminescent paint to clearly mark road lanes at night – has created the world's first 3D-printed bridge in collaboration with startup MX3D and designer Joris Laarman. The bridge, which was first designed in October 2015, will span across the Oudezijds Achterburgwal canal when it is completed in 2017.

MX3D's 3D printer, though, isn't like those that we've traditionally seen. Rather than a desktop 3D printer, MX3D's technology consists of a set of large mechanical arms that hold a torch-like tool for welding. These robot arms build 3D objects in an open warehouse space rather than inside a box as most 3D printers do. The arms can also print in all directions, unlike typical 3D printers, which allows for much more creativity and variability in the design stage. Heijmans Innovation Manager Jurre van der Ven says that 3D printing joins design and construction into a single process, rather than two separate processes as has traditionally been seen in construction. Van der Ven notes that this change will require site managers and designers to start looking at the design process in a new way.

However, 3D printers do pose several challenges for civil engineering. First and foremost, 3D printers are limited in the kinds of materials they can print – for instance, 3D printers that can print circuit boards are still in development and may not be ready for commercial use for several years. 3D printers also pose a threat to manufacturing jobs, and training staff to use 3D printers may require a significant capital investment.

PlasticRoad: Improving the Durability and Lifespan of Our Roads

Plastic is one of the most commonly recycled products, with plastic materials often being recycled into bottles, bags, toys, containers, and much more. But now, a Dutch company is attempting to recycle plastic into something much larger: Roads. VolkerWessels is a Dutch construction firm that is preparing to build a PlasticRoad in Rotterdam. While VolkwerWessels' PlasticRoad is still only a concept, it's becoming quite popular in Holland, where 96 million tons of carbon dioxide are released into the air through road building and maintenance alone. VolkerWessels expects that its PlasticRoad will reduce greenhouse gas emissions while making roads stronger and increasing their lifespan.

Holland's infrastructure industry expects that these new roads will radically change the way Dutch development occurs. Relative to laying an asphalt road, building a road out of plastic is significantly faster, and (at least in theory) could take as little as just a few weeks. The PlasticRoad also allows for easy infrastructure upgrades, as the road is hollow, which enables city planners to run pipes and wires inside the road itself. Civil engineers say the road's hollow cavities may also be useful in draining floodwater in the event of rainstorms. Should Holland's plan succeed, it would serve as a viable proof of concept that could forever change the way civil engineers all over the world approach road building.

There are, however, concerns about the plastic roads that Holland plans to build. Environmentally, there are concerns that the plastic may leach into the soil and harm the local flora. The road's components are also somewhat volatile, and exposure to chlorine will cause the road to give off hydrogen chloride – a colorless gas that, when exposed to atmospheric humidity, turns into hydrochloric acid. When it becomes sufficiently concentrated, hydrochloric acid forms an acidic mist that can cause irreversible damage to human tissue – and if it is combined with an oxidizing agent, hydrochloric acid synthesizes into toxic chlorine gas. That means the engineering process will require stringent safety protocols in order to protect the on-site crew, and the materials engineers responsible for the plastic road will need to create a safeguard or additional waterproof layer that prevents leaching and exposure to chemicals.

Holographic Computers: Giving More Accurate Information to Engineers in Real Time

The next revolution in wearable tech is here, and it's going to forever change information management and communication processes in the civil engineering industry. Microsoft has been promoting its new HoloLens technology for over a year, escorting the world's most respected technology journalists to a secret underground bunker at the company's Redmond campus for tightly controlled product demonstrations.

HoloLens is a mixed reality headset that layers 3D holograms over physical world images in order to convey helpful information to the wearer. Using the HoloLens, civil engineers can see digital input drawn over physical objects, share that input with collaborators via Skype, fine-tune designs in 3D, and explore designs in real time. A variety of businesses are currently using Microsoft HoloLens to alter the way production happens. Volvo, for instance, is using HoloLens technology to design and configure its vehicles in completely new ways. Meanwhile, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is planning to use the HoloLens to make holographic representations of the Mars landscape based on Mars Rover images. Currently, businesses in the architecture and construction industries are piloting the HoloLens and developing innovative new processes that leverage 3D holographic models to improve the design phase.

However, the HoloLens does come with certain disadvantages. The headset could serve as a workplace distraction that hinders productivity. The prototype version also has a very limited field of view, allowing augmented reality vision of only certain objects.

Contactless Security Cards: Improving on RFID to Boost Security

Site security is always a priority, and with technology evolving, site managers need more and more security measures at their disposal. The next big thing in site security is contactless security cards. These cards can be programmed with individual profile information to uniquely identify each cardholder, and can give users access to secure offices, secure parking, and even computer networks. The great advantage that these smart cards offer is that security becomes much easier to manage. Employees can check themselves into and out of the worksite with just a swipe of a card, and managers have a turnkey security solution that doesn't require their constant presence. However, security cards do present certain disadvantages.

Firstly, security cards can be lost or stolen, unlike a memorized four-digit security code. That means security cards that are reported as stolen or lost will need to be immediately deactivated, which increases the amount of administration required. Card-based site access systems are also vulnerable to hacking, just as most security systems are. Hackers can copy RFID information using an RFID scanner by simply standing near people with privileged access, and site workers won't even know their card has been copied.

Civil engineering is a rapidly changing industry, with new technologies constantly arising to challenge established norms and revolutionize traditional practices. These major technology trends are expected to shake up the industry yet again in 2016, so watch for civil engineers to start incorporating these tools in projects. 

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