An excavator plunges its bucket into a hole, scooping dirt and piling it nearby. A short while later, a bulldozer pushes the dirt away.
Neither has a human in its driver’s seat. Instead, the operators are sitting in an office miles away, working alongside project managers and other team members. The group monitors video feeds and data pouring in from on-site sensors, making sure the job proceeds smoothly and safely.
Zhenhua Zhu hopes his research will help make that kind of automation possible in the construction industry in the future—“smart construction,” if you will.
Zhu, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and Mortenson Fellow who joined the University of Wisconsin-Madison in spring 2019, uses video and other visual sensor technology to assess productivity, monitor project progress, detect damage and improve safety in the construction field.
“If there is more automation in the construction field, it could help us to increase productivity, reduce the waste, improve safety and have more skilled workers,” says Zhu, who spent the past eight years on the faculty at Concordia University in Montreal. “All these problems need to be solved, and if they can be solved with new technology, I believe it will bring a lot of benefits.”
By using computing technology to analyze videos from the field, Zhu can mine information on equipment usage, worker behavior, structural integrity and more.
Construction firms could use data measuring productivity—both of vehicles and workers—to create benchmarks for future projects and to improve cost estimates. Such insights could also help resolve disputes between contractors and facility owners by delivering objective data related to project delays and work output.
Zhu can also use video feeds to create real-time safety warnings or ensure workers are wearing protective gear such as helmets.
As a PhD student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Zhu used video from Haiti in the wake of the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake to analyze damage and estimate structural capacity. In the future, live video feeds could provide firefighters and first responders with real-time information about the stability of buildings they’re about to enter. Zhu says the work showed him the potential for applying visual sensor technology to civil engineering dilemmas.
He’s since focused on the construction industry, which he says offers both a dynamic environment—subject to the whims of nature—and complexity, with every project requiring cooperation among clients, contractors and workers.
Zhu cites the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering’s strong relationships with industry partners as a major draw in coming to UW-Madison.
“I think there will be a lot of opportunities to work with the companies in the field,” he says.
And he hopes to involve his students in that kind of field work to expose them to the challenges and restrictions of real projects.
“After taking courses, they need to be able to solve the real problems,” says Zhu, who also plans to invite industry collaborators to guest lecture in his courses. “So it’s not just about the theories or the facts or the figures. They need to know how to use these things to solve the practical problems.”
Author: Tom Ziemer