Tech 101: 5G networks in construction (Construction Dive)

The reality still trails the hype, but this wireless communication technology’s advantages for construction are clear.

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If you’re in construction, you’ve probably had this experience, or know someone who has.

You spend precious minutes at the beginning of the day downloading your project’s most up-to-date 2D plan or 3D model onto your smartphone or tablet, but when you get out on the job, you discover a change was made that’s not on your device.

Of course, the problem doesn’t lie with the digital plans or the smart device in your hand. The reason to download that data to use “off line” once onsite comes down to the connectivity challenges encountered on most active construction projects.

Trying to download large-size files in the field, even on the fastest devices, can be an exercise in futility, one represented by the endlessly spinning pinwheel on your screen.

But 5G, especially as it will be applied to construction, has the potential to change all that.

What you should know

5G represents the fifth generation of wireless communication standards. Nearly 20 years ago, 3G was what allowed your old flip phone to connect to the internet. 4G enabled video streaming, as well as a host of apps that rely on continuous connectivity.

5G represents the next iteration in speed — at least 10 times faster than 4G LTE, with some experts predicting as much as a 100-fold speed gain.

But the technology’s real advantage, especially for construction, is its low latency. Latency is the digital stuttering you see using a video app like Zoom over a slow connection.

It can also result in staccato skipping of a virtual reality app, drift when 3D holographic glasses are used to “see” plans overlaid on existing site work, or — worst case scenario — the dropping of communication between an autonomous piece of earth-moving equipment and its controller.

“5G is designed to enable a high-data rate at low latency,” said Babak Beheshti, dean of the College of Engineering and Computing Sciences at the New York Institute of Technology and senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. “These two characteristics allow for fast real-time transfer of data between two or multiple points.”

Construction applications

That’s a big deal for construction, because it means the computing power needed to run data-intensive files such as a 3D BIM model doesn’t have to exist inside the device in your hand, or the one you’re wearing on your head. Instead, processing data can be performed in the cloud, with the resulting content served up quickly, allowing you to do your job onsite without all the skipping.

A side benefit is that devices used in the field will need less computing power, which will make them less expensive, and physically lighter to carry. While iPads are ubiquitous on construction sites, carry one with you all day and you’ll quickly realize the advantage of this aspect of 5G.

“The weight, size and cost of these devices will be significantly reduced when the processing is shifted to the cloud,” Beheshti said. “There are headsets that cost thousands of dollars today to perform augmented reality at the construction site, and they’re expensive because they perform all the computations locally.”

Future potential

That’s just one use case where the advantages of 5G come into play. What really excites proponents of the technology is the potential for a connected construction site in the future, where Internet of Things sensors communicate with wearables on workers’ bodies to geofence them away from danger zones, and alert others if accidents occur.

“We’re already seeing sites use devices such as smart hard hats and sensor-enabled vests to monitor the health and safety of workers,” said Burcin Kaplanoglu, vice president at construction project management software maker Oracle’s Industry Innovation Labs. “If a worker was to fall or be involved in an accident, sensors can track heart rate, breathing and other vital signs, and take the next action to alert a manager or even emergency personnel. Every second counts, so the speed and reliability of the 5G network is critical.”

Other use cases involve autonomous earth movers that can be controlled by personnel working from a central command center, or smart construction equipment that talks with other machines onsite to ensure they don’t enter each other’s work zones, as illustrated in this video.

Roadblocks

For now, though, most of those scenarios are still in the future because the architecture and deployment of the technology itself.

While phone carriers such as Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile all boast about their 5G network capabilities, ultra-fast, ultra-low latency 5G is rarely available. That’s because 5G varies depending on how it’s set up.

The underlying technology relies on three different types of networks: low-band, which gives wider coverage, but lacks speed; high-band, which can be super fast and have low latency, but doesn’t travel as far; and mid-band, a compromise between speed and coverage area.

That means that most high-band, high speed, low latency networks right now are only in densely populated urban centers, or places like football stadiums and airports where they’ve specifically been installed — using thousands of antennas in close proximity to each other — to showcase the technology’s ability.

But having that kind of connectivity on a remote construction site is still years away.

“Due to the limited coverage areas of mid and high-band 5G, we have not yet been able to utilize 5G at this time fully,” said Kevan Burton, data and telecom manager at San Jose, California-based Rosendin Electric. “We’re still using 4G LTE at many of our construction job sites where traditional wire line services are not available, such as in rural areas where we build solar and wind farms.”

He added that Rosendin is upgrading its remote site gear to include cellular modems that are 5G ready to allow the firm to roll out the technology when 5G services are more widely available.

When that day comes is still anyone’s guess. The GSMA, a worldwide trade group of mobile operators, predicts that by 2025, 5G will account for 20% of global connections. Penetration will be particularly strong across developed Asia, North America and Europe, according to the group.

The good news for contractors, though, is that in order for the 5G network to be fully realized over the next decade, it will take someone to build it. Boston Consulting Group and wireless industry trade group CTIA predict that by 2030, doing so will contribute $127 billion to the construction industry. The sector will also gain 451,000 jobs from the roll out.

Notable projects

To date, the most notable construction project to leverage 5G technology onsite has been the Beijing Economic–Technological Development Area, a zone of high-tech manufacturing plants.

There, 40 contractors are leveraging a network that transmits data at 10GB per second.

According to Global Construction Review, that has allowed them to use AI glasses that allow engineers back in the office to see what workers see onsite, monitor workers’ vital signs, monitor cranes and even see if workers are wearing masks during the pandemic.

Closer to home, the New York City Department of Buildings is piloting a video inspection program, testing it on selected sites throughout the city to allow inspectors to cover ground remotely.

While the pilot doesn’t require 5G to participate, if it’s available – and New York City is one of the areas in the country with the best 5G coverage currently — it is being used.

“The program relies on the contractor having an internet connection at the site so that they can use for the video inspection,” said Andrew Rudansky, DOB’s press secretary. “That can either be wifi or cellular, which would include cellular 5G.”

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