About 41.6 billion IoT devices are expected to be connected to the Internet by 2025, according to IDC, ensuring that IoT takes hold across industries, from healthcare and agriculture to energy and more.
One of the key enablers of IoT devices — and a critical factor in its long-term success — is the platform or network that the devices run on. While this might not be the sexiest part of the technology, the network provides the backbone that enables everything else to happen: the computing power, connectivity, communication and security. While IoT devices collect the data that is needed for analytics, this information would be meaningless without a network on which to share it all.
IoT networks, for example, enable data-driven visibility in construction, where they are driving enhanced safety and productivity. With IoT devices worn by workers, or placed on equipment, tools and locations around the site, contractors can see where people and things are located and track activity and equipment use. This enables supervisors to be immediately alerted when falls occur and allow workers to communicate any safety concerns or locate equipment when they need it, among other capabilities.
Special environments require special considerations
Designing an IoT network to accomplish these tasks requires special capabilities to address the unique requirements of a construction environment.
Because the footprint, layout and dimensions of a building under construction can change radically from day to day the network needs to be scalable and flexible. Power sources under these conditions are often limited, so any network has to be able to function well in low power conditions. At the same time, it must have bandwidth and scalability to grow with the site and enough power to connect through steel, concrete and other challenging materials.
Given these considerations the network needs to meet the following requirements:
- Adequate power.
- The use of a communication frequency suitable for construction sites, such as a network that can penetrate through tough materials across a great distance, like radio frequency.
- A reliable network with minimal hardware requirements.
- The scalability to support tens of thousands of devices simultaneously on a single site.
- Integration with other tools and apps in the ecosystem, which can often be one of the biggest barriers to IoT adoption.
- Security protection for information shared over the network.
In addition to these network requirements, there are some real-world issues that need to be addressed to make IoT use feasible on construction sites. Workers need to be convinced of the benefits of these devices in order to ensure adoption. They also will be more likely to use them if they provide safety benefits, enabling them to receive help more quickly in the event of a fall or give them a reliable way to communicate any issues in real time. Worker concerns about privacy could impact adoption, so these issues need to be taken into consideration as well.
Tools of the trade
While there are several traditional network technologies that are available, many are lacking the capabilities needed to function well in jobsite environments.
While GPS are ubiquitous tools that are used for navigation, they have limitations that can make them impracticable for commercial use in certain settings. Tall buildings interfere with the GPS signal, and vertical locations often cannot be identified accurately. This makes the technology poorly suited for urban jobsites that can be surrounded by skyscrapers or contain multiple stories since it is unable to accurately track workers or equipment.
Additionally, GPS is power hungry, and its high power consumption can quickly drain a device’s batteries. This can pose a problem on sites where electricity is not readily available and where it’s not an option to regularly recharge devices. Further, because of perceptions of GPS as tracking systems — on-site as well as off-site — workers could be concerned about how it may impact their privacy.
Ultra wideband networks are another type of radio technology that could be used on the jobsite, but they present challenges. These networks are designed for high-bandwidth and low-range applications, which are better suited to permanent installations, not construction sites. They require a significant amount of high-powered hardware, yet they are burdened by about 100 devices per gateway, which can limit their use on large construction sites with hundreds of workers and pieces of equipment.
Bluetooth low energy can be cost prohibitive for many construction companies because it requires each sensor on every worker and piece of equipment to be connected to a dedicated device, such as a mobile phone. Because of that, it can drain a battery quickly.
In addition, Bluetooth low energy technology has difficulty hosting large numbers or dense collections of devices, limiting its use on a busy jobsite. It runs off 2.4 GHz frequency, so it has the same distance limitations as Wi-Fi in the jobsite environment.
A scalable, practical network for construction
Because of the limitations of traditional networks, construction sites often turn to proprietary network technology designed from the ground up to address their real-world needs and scale with the changing footprint and infrastructure of the jobsite. These networks also integrate with other construction apps to provide greater insights and value.
IoT devices enable increased safety and productivity on the jobsite, but the network is the engine driving their success. Selecting a robust and reliable IoT hub that connects not only the devices, but also other applications across the network, and that can scale to meet changing jobsite needs gives them the starring role in the construction industry’s IT toolkit of the future.
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