Evaluating drones and emerging tech: One CIO's advice

Evaluating drones and emerging tech: One CIO's advice

Drones have become a big deal. But IoT, virtual reality, and AI also beg for attention. How can you sort through the challenges?

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November 10, 2017
Marketing Talk for the CIO

When I look at the emerging technologies impacting the field of construction, there’s no shortage of avenues we could explore. Narrowing the choices down to those that are most relevant is a big challenge. I’m sure CIOs across industries can relate, given the influx of new solutions and technologies we hear about every day.

For construction, safety is the No. 1 concern across the industry. And emerging technology has a number of potential solutions to address this concern. We’re looking at things like intelligent safety gear – everything from RFID tags to sensors that can detect heart rate, pulse, exposure to dangerous gases, physical injuries, and more. These Internet of Things (IoT) devices could be a significant step toward making sure our employees go home to their families each and every day.

But there are many challenges keeping us from deploying a slew of IoT devices at a construction site. If I want to keep employees safe through the use of devices that are on their bodies, that type of data has to be monitored in real time. Couple that with the fact that any one device can generate up to a terabyte of data a day, and the sheer ability to monitor, track, and react in real time can be absolutely mind-boggling.

That’s just one example. We’re also looking at artificial intelligence, IoT applications outside of safety, and augmented and virtual reality – all of which come with their own layers of considerations and potential complications. And because there are no set standards in place for our industry, there’s no efficient, effective way to quickly evaluate each new technology that comes along.

[ How will AI affect you and your organization? See our related article, 5 TED Talks on AI to watch. ]

Determining relevance

During the past couple of years, drones have become a big deal in construction. But initially, the applications did not seem that practical. For example, we could fly over a big hole in the ground and then fly over again in a month and show a little progress. It seemed great for business development and marketing fodder, but little else. Regardless, we dug deeper to get a better understanding and determine if drone technology was worth exploring.

More recently, as the technology has evolved, we’ve been able to consider using drones to address productivity and determine whether we’re on schedule or not. They also can have added safety benefits. For instance, if we need to inspect wind generators or power lines, it’s a lot safer to send up a drone than a person.

The only way to know whether or not you can fully leverage the technology is to immerse yourself in it. We did that early. Once the use cases for drones became clear to us, we decided to get somebody in our business certified as a drone pilot. Now, we have a nice drone with high-definition cameras, and we’re working with our building information modeling teams to see how we can start leveraging drone footage for more than just beautiful marketing flyovers.  

Challenges along the way

"If we truly wanted to evaluate the benefits of drones for our company, we were going to have to address the data challenge early and head on."

In evaluating drone technology, one of the biggest challenges we encountered was what to do with all the gigabytes of drone footage we were collecting. We wondered: How would we store it? Where would we keep it, and for how long? We used to think we had a big data problem before this new technology came along. But once we started looking at more IoT devices, we realized our data challenges were going to grow exponentially because of all the data they generate. If we truly wanted to evaluate the benefits of drones for our company, we were going to have to address the data challenge early and head on.

In this case, we partnered with a cloud technology and intelligent platform provider that enabled us to not only store but also take action on our data. We’ve now married this platform with our drone experiments, and it’s helping us to combat early challenges with the technology.

Getting IT on board

Figuring out how to use emerging technology isn’t our only challenge, however. Compared to other industries, the construction industry has the lowest technology spend as a percent of revenue in the nation. As documented by Gartner and other analysts, it’s right around 1 percent, and in most cases, a little less. So one of the biggest challenges we have is funding R&D to start working on new projects and evaluating all these emerging technologies. We need to spend the few R&D dollars that we do have wisely and hope that we’re choosing the right things to explore.  

Because we don’t have that funding, trying to instill passion and excitement into the team to work on new technologies can also be difficult. They’re interested and intrigued, but it can sometimes feel more like a hobby. They’re too busy keeping the lights on to dedicate too much of their time to learning something new.

As an example, we had some virtual reality glasses floating around a couple of weeks ago, and it was all the buzz in the building. But it was a real challenge for people to carve out the time to experiment with the technology because they were all so busy.  

Regardless of the industry you work in, there will be challenges when it comes to evaluating new technologies and solutions. My advice for other CIOs is to identify those challenges early on, so they don’t get in the way of determining whether a new technology is right for your business.

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Sam Lamonica is Vice President and Chief Information Officer for Rosendin Electric, the nation’s largest privately held electrical contractor. Rosendin Electric has over 4,000 office and field employees and yearly revenue of close to $1 Billion. He is responsible for the companies’ Information System Organization as well as Archives/Records Management. Prior to joining Rosendin Electric, Mr. Lamonica held the position of CIO at Rudolph and Sletten Construction, one of the largest California based General Contracting and Construction firms.

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