How Oracle's test smart city may pioneer bold ideas for construction

From climbing robots and site sensors to virtual construction worlds, Interesting Engineering visited Oracle's UK lab to explore what the industry's future could look like.
Sade Agard
Smart city and construction concept
Smart city and construction concept

PhonlamaiPhoto/iStock 

We've all heard about or personally experienced how tech innovation is revolutionizing various industries, including automotive and healthcare. However, how are the same technical developments being applied in the construction sector?

That is, how are drones, the internet of things (IoT), robotics, and reality capture (just to name a few) making construction sites safer, more predictable, sustainable, and effective?

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The truth is an investment in construction technology businesses in the U.S. alone boosted to $1.3 billion in the first half (H1) of 2022- a 44 percent increase from H2 of 2021. And it's only set to skyrocket in the future.

The multinational computer technology company Oracle provides a stage for companies to 'test' their transformative technologies through its global network of mini smart cities, otherwise known as 'Innovation Industry Labs.' As described by the labs' vice president, Burcin Kaplanoglu, call it a place to "fail fast, learn and improve."

To find out what the future of construction could look like, Interesting Engineering (IE) visited Oracle's new site in Reading, U.K., where we spoke with lab managers Stuart Cranston and Andrew Pestana.

Data enables construction sites to operate

How Oracle's test smart city may pioneer bold ideas for construction
Transportable building design

IE is taken to a typical-looking construction site cabin. However, on the way, we notice that everything looks 'transportable' - i.e., not permanently set in the ground. Cranston and Pestana explained that the entire smart city is built on a steel structure that arrives at the site as sections. The idea is that when buildings reach the end of their lives, they can be easily disassembled and sustainably decommissioned.

"This is a construction zone. We've tried to ensure this place was as close to a real-world environment as possible. We didn't want anything more than that," Cranston and Pestana explained. 

"We say to the 'industry, what are your key challenges?' said Cranston, who then explained that once they did that, Oracle would go through a process that outlines ways they could solve those problems.

"Either, firstly, through Oracle technology, because we've got our long list of capabilities, expertise, and knowledge. Secondly, by partnering," he added. But fundamentally, "Data is what enables construction sites to operate."

Building intelligence

And there are mountains of data created by modern building operations.

From uncovering hidden risks to making timely decisions that keep everything on track, the idea at Oracle's labs is that data is used most efficiently to build intelligence. 

For instance, in the site cabin, IE is directed to a healthcare monitoring device that takes blood pressure and weight measurements. "So this is mainly about the welfare of construction staff," Calston explained. 

"Employees can test themselves if they want. It's not compulsory, for example, but they can test themselves and track their performance — hopefully not a raised blood pressure. The app [Oracle creates] also gives them tips and tricks to improve," he said. 

"We don't make those machines; one of our partners would. But we have the systems that those machines can feed into. They can capture the data on Oracle Cloud, which can feed into various databases we offer. So that integration of Oracle technology and partner technology becomes a holistic solution to a customer's challenge," he revealed.

"The brains are within that piece there" 

How Oracle's test smart city may pioneer bold ideas for construction
Rainwater harvesting

The second most common reason for loss during construction projects is water damage, which can bring an entire project to a halt.

"We have this water device called WINT. It uses A.I. (artificial technology) to monitor water flow and pressure," said Cranston.

According to Cranston and Pestana, WINT automatically senses a drop in water pressure flow. In this case, the device can autonomously switch off the supply, potentially saving vast amounts of damage and money. "The brains are within that piece there," said Pestana.

"If you're building a multi-story apartment building or an office block, and you have a water break on the 30th or 40th floor, you're not going to know about it until there's a big, massive puddle," explained Cranston. "That kind of technology [WINT] on construction sites helps to mitigate some of that risk."

Another way the mini smart city keeps water resources in check is through rainwater harvesting. The collected water is stored in tanks and can be directly fed into various systems across the site, including a gardening area.

This makes sense since construction activities require large quantities of water; this solution provides a more sustainable means for attaining it.

Virtual construction worlds 

"We've got a 360-degree camera that staff can walk around with on their hard hat, which works as a 3D/4D site capture tool," revealed Cranston.

Conventionally, workers do a walk on a construction site, and everything would be done manually, including writing down problems such as trip hazards

"This [camera] now allows them to go online and communicate that information in a fully virtual environment that others can interact with," he said. 

"You mark it up and then show that in a virtual world to, say, the foreman that could be based in another country," Cranston. Then the construction company can better anticipate, respond to, and manage these obstacles promptly and strategically.

'Sensing' materials six feet under

One of the biggest challenges for construction sites is knowing where materials are and their quantities. This is where the smart city's RFID (Radio Frequency identity) tags come in.

"Essentially, you can 'tag' them onto equipment or materials, walk around with the smallest device and find that piece of material," he explained. We are told the company behind the technology is based in the north of Canada. "They had a lot of their products buried six feet down in the snow," he said, "they had no idea where it was." 

"The RFID tags allowed them to identify, locate more or less where it was." In fact, had it not been for the tags, they probably would have sent a handful of workers with shovels hoping to find them.

The RFIDs could also determine the time concrete takes to cure. When embedded within the concrete, the sensor accurately records when it has reached the required strength in real time.

"Therefore, you can continue to build, which has a huge benefit from an efficiency perspective," said Cranston. "Instead of six weeks, your concrete is ready in four weeks. Then you can start building the next level of your building, speeding up the construction process."

Climbing maintenance robots

Adjacent to the WINT water solutions area is a transformer post or power distribution pole. "At some point, we'd like to incorporate energy into the story we tell. And that was one of the reasons why we stuck the distribution pole up," Cranston revealed.

"There could be a technology out there that helps distribution companies maintain transformer poles. So either a robot that climbs up the post and changes the insulators or does something up there," he said.

Next-level air quality monitoring

How Oracle's test smart city may pioneer bold ideas for construction
Air monitoring device

When building in a city with offices and housing nearby, contractors are responsible for ensuring that the air quality is maintained at a certain level - both for people working on site and the communities around it.

"That little white box up there is continuously monitoring the air quality. This is the air quality station, and it's solar powered," said Cranston. 

He explained that information obtained from the device would be channeled through to a control cabin and continuously monitored. "Automated alerts would come out of that, keeping staff in check with set thresholds.

A space that will evolve with future tech

"We have to remain agnostic to the solution. We will present multiple solutions to solve some of this industry's problems," said Cranston.

For example, the site has plans to install an E.V. (Electric Vehicle) charging station. "But you know, where's the future of that going regarding how we charge vehicles?" he asked. "What we need to do is keep on raising the ability and capability within an industry."

And while construction engineering is arguably the most mature in Oracle's vision for greater efficiency and sustainability, the company has plans to 'raise' four other industries. That is, food and beverage, hospitality, communications, and communications applications.

"The first part of 2023 will be about building all the different stories for those five industries," Cranston concluded.