Constructing connectivity
Written by: Simon Creasey | Published:

Providing full connectivity to large construction sites has always been a challenge, but now companies want to access broadband data and deploy IoT applications to locate workers and equipment and for health and security monitoring, as Simon Creasey reports

Few industry sectors encounter as many communications challenges as construction. For starters, construction sites are often in remote locations where it is incredibly difficult to deliver full connectivity. You might also have hundreds of workers from numerous different companies scattered across a site that stretches for many acres, with some beavering away deep underground on the building’s foundations and others working hundreds of feet in the sky in cranes.

So what options are available to construction companies looking to establish wireless communication networks on sites? For starters, providing fibre to a project that starts out as a giant hole in the ground that is often located in the middle of nowhere is a non-starter. Often it is not logistically possible to put fibre into sites as it is too cost prohibitive or the lead time is going to be too long – according to industry sources, construction companies only typically require connectivity for around nine months. Other connectivity options such as dongles and satellites only offer restricted data and speeds. Another obstacle is that construction companies usually want connectivity delivered quickly.

One solution is EE’s Rapid Site – its 5G broadband solution that can be up and running in just three days. After undertaking a survey, EE will fix its Rapid Site antenna on the outside of the site office, orientated to get the strongest available 4G/5G signal, explains Dan Cole, future mobile propositions, enterprise at EE. A ruggedised managed CPE is installed inside a site cabin, cabled to the antennae, which provides Wi-Fi or fixed LAN for customer needs. “One of the reasons for using things like an external antenna is, say you’ve only got two bars – that means if you walk around some sides of the site, you might drop to one bar, which is going to be borderline [in terms of connectivity]. As long as we can get a couple of bars in the rough area where an installation is then you can put the antenna facing the cell site, so you can maximise the chances of being able to get a much better signal,” says Cole.

Connectivity and security challenges

Tardis 4G has provided connectivity to thousands of construction sites across the UK. Matt Sutton, co-founder, says problems don’t just relate to connecting workers: “As soon as they start covering the exterior of the building with glass and cladding and putting floors in, that’s when connectivity issues can arise.”

Another hurdle is the growing number of devices that are being used by workers that consume a tremendous amount of data. “10 years ago, a lot of the devices that construction workers were bringing on site might only be feature phones,” explains Cole. “Today, you’ve got loads of people using smartphones [on site] and that can put a bit of a strain on some of the cell sites.”

It is a scenario that PJ Farr, managing director at UK Connect, which specialises in providing broadband and voice services to construction companies, comes across all the time. “For a typical construction site building 50 homes, they might have more than 500 transient workers,” says Farr. “And all of these people need to be connected to the network.”

And it is not just the phones or radios of workers that are consuming data on construction sites. “There has been an increased uptake in wireless-enabled devices, and customers have started to show more interest in and appetite for IoT and connected solutions,” says Lee Garrett, head of pre-sales at Westbase.io, a distributor of 4G LTE and IoT networking solutions.

Garrett adds: “We have also seen a lot of interest in wider security solutions, and not just CCTV connecting back over cellular gateways and routers, but more specialist, more intelligent [security solutions] such as connected sensors that can be deployed to – for example – focus on targeted attacks on high-value asset machinery. There’s a lot of digital transformation that’s already taken place within construction companies, and that then puts a heavy demand on connecting their remote sites and identifying suitable connectivity in challenging locations.”

Farr has also detected the digital transformation Garrett refers to. He says a lot of construction companies have created digital leadership teams and committees to oversee this transformation and they have really started to embrace digital technologies, having woken up to the benefits they offer.

“It’s an industry that typically, or traditionally, has been quite slow and far behind in terms of technology,” says Farr. “But we’ve recently seen a massive push.”

He explains that health and safety considerations have driven a lot of this technology adoption, and this is one of the reasons UK Connect has created an offshoot operation called One Site, which through a combination of bespoke software and hardware aims to “digitise industry”. The business will officially launch in April.

“Using One Site software, we know where every person is on site, and we’ve put cameras on construction sites that can see if people are wearing PPE or not,” explains Farr. He says the software solution can also eradicate signing-in books, that need to be physically signed by workers entering and leaving sites and which are regularly filled out incorrectly, by automatically detecting the presence of workers.

Bespoke solutions

Two-way radios are still popular and widely used by the construction sector, but there has been a rapid uptake in the use of mobile for voice (and, of course, data) in the industry, including PTT over Cellular (PoC) solutions. “Even if you had asked me a year ago, I would have thought the one place that Push-to-talk over Cellular wouldn’t have been used was on a construction site, but I guess it shows how times have changed,” says James Miller, managing director at Brentwood Communications.

Two-way radio specialist Brentwood is looking to drive a greater adoption of technology in the construction sector and deliver bespoke innovative solutions. One such solution is an adapted headset for ‘slingers’ – who work with crane operators to provide safe direction and supervision – that allows them to communicate hands-free.

“So, for example, a crane might be lowering a piece of equipment and the slinger will need to move that bit of equipment around with their hands and at the same time speak to someone on the ground, but they can’t go on a radio and just use one hand,” explains Miller. “We couldn’t find anything off the shelf that they could use so we adapted a headset that allows them to just flick a switch, and then they can go completely hands-free on their headset.”

This solution was rolled out at 22 Bishopsgate in the City of London, which when completed will be the tallest building in the City. “We built a hands-free system for the crane operators there, and because of the height of the building we used repeaters,” says Miller. “We also had to build in a support package for them because what we were finding was due to the sheer speed [with which] they were building the floors, there was a danger they wouldn’t have coverage. We tested the RF literally every week. So as they were putting the windows in and building the building, we would either add on to the antennas or extend the cable.”

He adds that because buildings in cities such as London are getting bigger, delivering site-wide connectivity has become more and more of a challenge for the sector. “We’ve done a number of projects for Crossrail where we have a number of systems that are linked to a number of repeaters underground,” says Miller. “And that needs pretty much 24/7 support, because if they don’t have coverage – if they don’t have radios – they have to stop work.”

More capacity required

Also pushing the boundaries on the innovation front is Tardis 4G. Sutton says the connectivity demands of the construction industry are growing rapidly. “It’s all about connectivity,” explains Sutton. “There’s a massive need for it.”

In addition to the company’s core 4G broadband product, Tardis is currently busy developing a number of gadgets and gizmos that could soon be used by construction workers. One product Sutton is particularly excited about is a body-worn personal ‘dose meter’ that monitors environmental and biological conditions, along with other capabilities. It has Bluetooth functionality that can download information to an app on a worker’s mobile phone.

The device, which works over the company’s “T” by Tardis modular IoT platform, will monitor an individual’s cardio rate and what levels of dust and gas they have been exposed to. If a worker is overexposed to an element, the device will alert them and management so they can be removed from harm’s way.

“All technology has pros and cons, and some have argued this IoT device will reduce a worker’s time in a particular environment, but ultimately our solutions will provide insights that can’t be delivered elsewhere and, who knows, it might even prevent illness,” argues Sutton.

Tracking assets

Going forward, Tardis is also looking to develop a product that provides GPS tracking using workers’ smartphones that shows exactly where they are on the site. “You will be able to look at a building and see people in digital form like a matrix,” says Sutton.

It may be a while before this product hits the market, but one thing the company is already getting a lot of interest in is an IoT platform that Sutton says significantly increases site security.

“Last year about £800m worth of plant was stolen from site compounds, and 25 per cent of the sites that were broken into and had things stolen didn’t even have a security guard or CCTV,” says Sutton. However, Tardis’s latest IoT platform ties in a new security solution with CCTV. Sutton claims that the solution, which utilises black infrared (BIR) cameras, essentially guarantees a prosecution will be achieved if people steal plant and tools from a site.

Sutton says the “T” by Tardis IoT platform enables smaller contractors to benefit from the kind of security solutions available to larger contractors. It is easy to manage, so contractors can monitor CCTV and drone surveillance footage for individual sites and their estate of sites and help prevent the theft of plant and equipment.

He adds: “We’re in a good position as a business. We know exactly what we’re doing and where we want to go, but the timing of delivery is where success is. Without the new cellular infrastructure, IoT fails.”

It is also about the ability of companies like Tardis to deliver reliable communication infrastructure on construction sites that allows this cutting-edge technology to work effectively. That is a long-standing challenge, but judging by recent evidence, it is one the communication industry appears to have risen to.


This material is protected by MA Business & Leisure Limited copyright.
See Terms and Conditions.


Twitter

Land Mobile is the only monthly publication exclusively dedicated to wireless communications for businesses. Launched in 1993, this leading industry title provides practical advice, expert opinion and commentary and insightful, informative, truly authoritative editorial.

St. Jude's Church,
Dulwich Road,
London,
SE24 0PB,
United Kingdom

MA Business is part of the Mark Allen Group.