Technology being developed at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) could make construction work safer and more efficient.

Construction workers could soon benefit from voice-activated technology that beams real-time audio instructions in their earpiece and augmented reality (AR) graphics onto their helmet visor.  Using artificial intelligence (AI), the system will voice and display information, thereby removing the need for walkie-talkies or consulting hard copies of blueprints.

The conversational AI technology is being developed by UWE Bristol’s Big Data Enterprise and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (Big-DEAL) alongside leading construction firms, which include Costain, Winvic Construction Ltd, TerOpta, Enable My Team and Geo Green Power.

The total project cost is £1.86 million funded by UKRI and EPSRC under the ISCF programme. The project started in January 2019 and it will last for three years.

Conversational AI refers to a technology that allows the user to verbally ask for and receive information in real-time from a computer. Two examples of existing products that use this form of artificial intelligence in the home are Amazon Alexa and Google Home.

“Until now, conversational AI has mostly been used in labs and controlled settings,” said Professor Lukumon Oyedele, who is Assistant Vice-Chancellor for Digital Innovation and Enterprise at UWE Bristol. “Here we are bringing it into a construction environment, where workers are using their hands and need a quick and effective way to gather information.”

Typical commands could include ‘Show me building plans’ or ‘show me construction sequence.’ The system will then supply them with immediate on-screen information, or instructions such as where to insert a screw in a structure. A guiding system, using arrows on the head-mounted display or a hand-held device, could also show them how to get to a specific area.

This data can also be provided as audio information in the worker’s headphones. “One of the many challenges is to ensure that the instructions are audible and stand out, given that there is a lot of background noise on a busy construction site,” said Professor Oyedele. “We are therefore looking at technologies including noise-cancellation to allow for this,” he added.

As well as guiding the workers on the building site, the system is to provide information for project managers, who will be able to access co-workers’ timesheets and know where they are located on site at any given time, as well as the status of various elements of the project.

“We hope that this technology will augment workers’ capabilities, to make construction more efficient. It is about improving worker’s productivity, ensuring a faster delivery process and getting it right the first time by avoiding defects,” said Professor Oyedele.

Tim Reeve, Technical Director at Winvic Construction Ltd, said: “It’s a real honour to be working with Professor Oyedele on his research project. AI can have relevant applications in unexpected places, and Winvic is eager to test the voice-activated headset that our data is helping to create.

“As our main focus is meeting clients’ needs – from a practical delivery point of view and also commercially – it was a natural progression for Winvic to become an early adopter of state-of-the-art BIM (Building Information Modelling) technology and we remain committed to digitally transforming construction.”

Geraint Evans