When we think of technological advances in civil engineering, it tends to be with regard to equipment, materials, and hands-on applications. In recent years for instance, tech innovations in civil engineering might include the equipment used in modular construction, or the process of 3D printing, or the material achievements in modern marine geotechnology.
These all represent exciting leaps forward in the engineering world. But there are also some less visible tech-related changes that may make an impact every bit as significant. Chief among these is the integration of the Internet of Things with the world of civil engineering.
What is the IoT?
The simplest way to define the IoT is that it is the connection of devices to the internet. But the real implication is more complicated than that. The IoT is really meant to refer the creation of entire networks of devices that are connected to the internet — and, through it, to each other. A mobile phone connecting to the internet on its own, for instance, is nothing new, and not something we’d explicitly think of as part of the IoT. But that same phone picking up automatic alerts — say, about the weather, or traffic patterns — is a result of the IoT in action. Various sensors and monitors can recognize conditions, communicate them to an online network or app, and relay relevant information to your phone, all automatically. It’s a simple example, but this is what the IoT is meant to make possible.
How does the IoT work?
This is a big question, but the best way to break it down is to say that the IoT functions by way of advanced electronics and wireless networks.
The electronics largely come down to the printed circuit board assembly that we now equip our devices with. These circuit boards actually come with their own antennae, and designers use what’s known as an antenna impedance matching calculator to set up the best possible signal. It’s a fairly advanced modern practice that ensures signal strength and helps to give even tiny devices the capability to seamlessly connect to the internet. In theory, a connection-ready circuit board can be built into just about anything at this point.
As for wireless networks, we essentially have 4G, LTE, and 5G networks to thank for the IoT coming to fruition. While connected devices can certainly function over Wi-Fi, networks out and about in the world, where Wi-Fi isn’t always available (or strong) make it possible for virtually innumerable devices to link up.
What are the applications in civil engineering?
With the IoT in place, civil engineers can implement and benefit from technology in a variety of new ways. For a few examples of specific applications, consider the following:
- Preventative maintenance – IoT sensors placed on anything from engineering equipment to completed projects can help to monitor conditions and relay data. This can let engineers know when maintenance is needed, or when the slightest sign of deterioration occurs — which in turn can save significant costs on repairs or mishaps.
- Improved safety – By and large, the IoT can be used to make us more aware of the safety of our environments. In a civil engineering context, this can mean real-time weather alerts, updates about equipment or machine integrity, and other things of this nature. The IoT can even be used to monitor vehicle performance en route to jobs, or in the execution of them. All of this can be used to keep engineers safer on the job.
- Data management – While it’s not what people think of when they imagine civil engineering, part of the job is updating and logging paperwork. This will always require some work, but IoT systems can help to automate parts of it. It’s possible now for systems to recognize project progress and compile relevant data accordingly — or for engineers to input only the most basic updates such that they can then be organized automatically.
- Automated instruction – The IoT can also be used to relay automated and real-time instructions to engineers on the job. Sensors at work sites can be made to recognize when tasks are completed, at which time a system with access to project plans can relay information about what’s next. Effectively, the IoT can be used to develop a sort of automated, intelligent blueprint.
Where do we go from here?
This is an impossible question to answer. But we do know that the more broadly, expected IoT growth over the course of this decade is expected to be astronomical. The global market is thought to be on its way to $1.5 trillion in annual revenue by 2030, which implies vastly more use than what we see today. How much of this will relate to civil engineering is difficult to say. But it’s fair to assume that what we’re seeing now is only the very beginning.