Construction has a $3 trillion waste problem. Can drones – and Digital Twin Tech – solve it?

Anyone who has ever done a kitchen renovation knows that building is difficult. It’s slow, progress is painful, getting all the trades on time is when the stars align, and there’s huge waste in the process.

Exyn Technologies thinks they can reduce some of it through drones. And the company has just landed a major client: Obayashi, Japan’s largest construction company.

But these drones won’t lift a hammer or install a window. Instead, they will continuously and autonomously fly over the entire construction site, mapping 3D space and uploading the visual data to BIM platforms – building information modeling systems – to ensure everything stays on track. Essentially, they create a living, breathing digital twin of the constantly evolving job site in near real time.

They won’t do this for your next bathroom remodel, of course.

This is for the $1.5 billion stadium, or the $1 billion tower, or the $250 million hotel construction.

“McKinsey did a study where they quantify the global construction industry as an $8 trillion industry,” CEO Nader Elm recently told me on the TechFirst podcast. “And they’ve also quantified that $3 trillion of that is actually due to inefficiency and waste.”

Much of that waste comes down to bad information, Elm says.

Trade does things at the wrong time. A wall is installed before wiring, or a window is installed before the interior fixture is loaded through the opening. Even with the best goodwill in the world, information moves slowly from trade to subcontractors to contractors to supervisors working for the general contractor.

That means that large construction companies often map their projects, usually walking through a huge project and taking pictures. It is a manual process that is very time consuming.

Exyn’s solution is to basically deploy the same autonomous drone they use for mapping mines without GPS. But large construction sites are challenging locations for autonomous drones.

“You can’t count on an immobile or static environment,” says COO Ben Williams. “Things change, it’s dynamic. Even if you don’t have anything planned to move, someone will leave a forklift, or a truck, or a bag, or whatever in the way, and so you need a system that can react in real time to changes in their environment.”

Drones that want to operate here have to keep working even if they encounter obstacles, including new ones every day, and even if they lose the GPS signal in a basement or parking garage. Fix that and you may be able to save yourself a huge amount of work.

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Digital twin tech, or digitizing a representation of the physical environment, is the goal.

“Previously, if you wanted to see the status of a construction site, you had to walk the construction site [with] a camera,” Williams says.

Then you either have a few hundred (or a thousand) digital photos to view, or you load them by hand into some sort of photogrammetry software. In some cases, if you wanted to do that, you had to make sure your lighting was right, you might have had to use a tripod every 15 to 20 feet, and you might have different requirements from your software.

“The basic idea here is that you streamline that process tremendously,” Williams says. “The same thing that would take you all day to capture with traditional methods could take you an hour or even less with a standalone system, and so both of you increase the accuracy, the speed at which you can work, and you” can actually perform digital data analyzes of this kind, which you were not even able to do before.”

In other words, you’ve automated data collection, you’ve automated data entry, and you can run automated comparisons day in and day out to see what progress has been made and if there’s anything going on that you need to look at. That, Williams says, saves construction companies time and money in less rework and remediation.

There is tremendous pressure to build robots that can help with one of the most dangerous and difficult jobs in construction – while helping to solve the shortage of construction labor and skills. Some of them are autonomous while others require a human in the loop. Most of them move materials, such as Construction Robotics Mule, or use 3D printing techniques, such as Branch Technology.

Exyn’s drone won’t move I-beams or pump concrete, but it promises to help with the increasingly digital nature of construction. However, the solution is not cheap. While Exyn doesn’t disclose pricing information, it certainly won’t fit my credit card.

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