Drones, 360-degree cameras ‘modeling’ future of construction

The capabilities of drones and 360-degree cameras are infinite.

Drones take flight to deliver epic cinematography in our movies. Three-hundred-and-sixty-degree cameras attach to helmets and handlebars to capture epic action movies.

A drone hovers over a construction site to monitor its progress.

And in transportation, drones hover our skies while 360-degree cameras mount hardhats to monitor construction sites and ensure project completion.

Meet Mani Golparvar-Fard, an associate professor and faculty entrepreneurial fellow at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Golparvar-Fard has been working with these imaging devices to transform their depictions into three-dimensional models ― a 3D mathematical representation of surfaces displayed on software, similar to Google Maps’ street-view experiences.

“Instead of manually surveying sites for retrofits and generating two-dimensional site plans as a basis of schematics, we end up creating a three-dimensional model on a computer,” he said, “and we use that to generate all of our construction documents.”

Golparvar-Fard holds bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in civil engineering as well as two other master’s degrees in the applied science of civil engineering and computer science. He and his students use 3D reality models as well as 2D and 3D design information and project schedules to monitor construction sites at the Real-time and Automated Monitoring and Control lab, where he serves as director.

“Drones can easily carry high-resolution digital cameras,” he said. “The visual feed provided by them can be used to map any site in three dimensions. If you’re in earth-moving operations, the three-dimensional models that are generated from these drone pictures can tell you how many cubic yards of dirt have been hauled away from the site.”

And that’s the same concept for 360-degree cameras, too.

Three-hundred-and-sixty-degree cameras show potential to further 3D modeling.

“We can assess the site, from a quality perspective, by comparing the 2D and 3D images of the site against the as-designed model,” he added.

So how will this technology shape the future? By making the switch from predictive to prescriptive data analytics.

“(What) is happening today is what we call predictive data analytics, and what that really means is once you compare reality, or what happens in the field against the design and project schedules, we can understand the impact of deviations in progress and (future) productivity of that project,” Golparvar-Fard said.

“When a project is scheduled and the schedule is tied to the design model, we can automatically compare the 3D reality of the site against the plan and forecast if there’s going to be delays happening.”

But that script is soon to flip, according to Golparvar-Fard.

“What we should be doing in the next five to 10 years is to tell you, ‘These are exactly the top five recommendations that we have for you on how you can revise your project schedule (to) make sure your project ends up being completed on time and on budget,’” he said.

As to whom reaps the reward? Golparvar-Fard thinks the biggest beneficiary is the public.

“If you’re working on an IDOT (Illinois Department of Transportation) project, we can forecast that and figure out what the implications are in terms of traffic, in terms of cost and, widely speaking, taxpayers’ money and how that’s being spent,” he said.

“The beauty here is that project controls information can be offered to contractors ahead of time so that (they) can revise their plans in time to make sure potential issues are being prevented,” he added. “This completely transform(s) today’s practices.”

Mani Golparvar-Fard is an associate professor and faculty entrepreneurial fellow at UIUC.

Golparvar-Fard considers himself lucky to lead UIUC’s efforts in this field during this exciting time.

“We’d love to use this technology as an opportunity to work with the industry and attract students to come over to the University of Illinois and consider their trajectory studying from here,” he said.

And that, perhaps, is his greatest passion, ensuring that his students carry on this research well into the future.

“If I can have the opportunity to keep working with their talents to offer cutting-edge solutions to the industry, and educate them and train them so they can be part of this cycle in the future, then I would consider this a success,” he said. “But more than anything, I really want to make sure that I can deliver quality research that makes an impact, an impact on the body of science and an impact on the practice.”

Written by: Emily Jankauski

Posted: May 5, 2020