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.