As advanced technologies like BIM and augmented reality transform the construction sector, scientists and engineers are increasingly focusing their efforts upon the development of innovative means for enhancing the safety of building sites.

One technological innovation that possesses particularly strong promise for shoring up the safety of the construction sector is the Cyber-Physical System (CPS), which is defined by the US National Science Foundation as an engineered system consisting of a seamless integration of computational algorithms and physical components.

CPS are already widely employed by the manufacturing, transportation and healthcare sectors. Academic researchers now looking to the technology for the potential safety benefits it can bring to building sites - in particular the temporary structures that play such an essential role during the construction process, yet are such a frequent cause of serious accidents.

A study recently completed at Penn State's Department of Architectural Engineering examined how CPS can be used to improve the monitoring of temporary structures by connecting sensors installed in the real world to 3D-virtual models.

The study involved the use of a panoply of sensors installed on temporary structures to collect and channel information about their performance to a cloud database. The system monitors this stream of real-world data for any inconsistencies that could signal danger, the highlights the potentially hazard-prone part of the virtual model while also sending warning notifications to mobile devices used by on-site personnel.

According to the author of the study, architectural engineering PhD candidate Xiao Yuan, linking sensors on temporary structures to their counterparts in the virtual world can dramatically enhance the monitoring and inspection process, allowing for functions such as remote interaction and advance detection of potential failures.

"Once there is a problem, our virtual model will know," said Yuan. "It's just like when we feel something if it hurts - the virtual model will feel if there is a problem."

In addition to performing real-time detection of potential safety failures, the "intelligent" virtual model is also capable of looking at accumulated data from the past to engage in self-learning and predict contingencies in advance.

"The virtual model can learn from historical behaviour for intelligent identification of potential hazards in the future," said Yuan.

Should CPS technology one day be applied to the Australian construction sector, it could dramatically reduce the incidence of serious injuries or fatal accidents on worksites, given that so many of them involve falls from temporary structures.

Data from Safe Work Australia indicates that more than a quarter of the 401 worker deaths that occurred in the construction sector during the decade long period from 2003 to 2013 were caused by falls from significant heights, mostly involving structures like scaffolding or mobile ramps.

  • Yes amazing, but Australia has some of the leaders in this Virtual Construction Space. I have been impressed with Queensland based Really Serious Games and there are others who can show what is possible. Uptake of this technology could be limited by Australian unions who see these advanced solutions potentially disrupting unproductive work practices. For example there has been push back over a pilot project to test exo-skeleton technology coming out of the recent middle east conflicts. Exo-skeleton technology could help older workers to stay in the workforce and lower strain injuries. In addition to carrying technology to warn workers about unsafe work edges and spaces, Exo-skeletons can also monitor body stress and mass. There are already examples of this technology saving lives and encouraging workers to adopt more healthy lifestyles. The CSIRO is also at the forefront of these technologies as presented to a PrefabAUS conference I attended in Melbourne last year. It would be a pity if the wellbeing and productivity of Australian construction workers was denied by unions. Global construction productivity is the emerging challange for our industry as emerging economies compete for new production and export opportunities. And don't think these economies are immune to the need to improve worker safety – they know the impact of the avoidable input costs in a competitive global market. Just ask the South Korean consortium that just won the $2.5bn contract to supply new trains for NSW. It really is time for the Australian industry to take notice of all of constructions global moving parts. The Safe Work data was interesting as there seems to be a correlation with falling construction injury rates and falling union membership.