How civil engineering can adapt to the current COVID-19 crisis

Together with a series of professionals, we look at how civil engineers can help to mitigate the impact of the current health crisis and what it means for working practices within our industry.

How will the coronavirus impact the construction industry?
How will the coronavirus impact the construction industry?

The COVID-19 pandemic looks set to change the way many of us work for good, but for civil engineering, it also affords the opportunity to fully embrace implementing digital software into working practices - and to optimize remote working where possible. Further development of digital technologies could help the sector deal with future pandemics and global catastrophes.

There is currently a public debate around whether the construction industry should continue to function considering the limited opportunities for social distancing for workers on-site.

A New Civil Engineer article recently highlighted the opportunities digital technology affords for remote working. Technology company Sensat has developed Mapp, a digital means of interacting with and remotely facilitating construction activity. Mapp produces live digital twins. Effectively, these are virtual replicas of the physical world – and provide means that could transform the way physical industries operate.

“What we're trying to do is reduce the amount of time people spend on site,” Sensat co-founder and chief data officer Harry Atkinson told NCE. “This means that people can make decisions on the project remotely – if they've got up to date and real time information, they can work remotely.”

And last year, during the National Digital Twin Day it was cited by the National Infrastructure Commission that there is the potential to unlock an additional £7 billion per year in benefits across the UK infrastructure sector through digital process and in addition to financial efficiencies, the NDT will bring benefits to society and the environment.

Watch ICE President Paul Sheffield discuss the current health crisis and its impact on our industry below:

Bachar Hakim blog

Meanwhile Bachar Hakim, Head of Pavement Design and Asset Management & Transportation at AECOM says the industry should adapt its skills to react to the current crisis.

"Working remotely with good digital infrastructure might be easy for designers, consultants, educators and students but more difficult for large construction site workers and network maintenance operators," says Bachar. "Hence, the first priority is to improve the digital infrastructure and communication skills, followed by offsite construction and automation."

Chris Landsburgh profile

Although Chris Landsburgh, Environmental & Sustainability Manager at Wills Bros Civil Engineering Ltd, recognises the devastating global impact of the current crisis, he says he hopes that we don't lose focus on outstanding issues like mitigation and adaptation to climate change; as well as the impact of GHG emissions.

"On a positive note and on a global scale, it is enlightening to see news stories emerge of Venetian canals running clear and nitrogen dioxide levels in China lowering," says Chris. "However the ongoing coronavirus pandemic will most certainly have impacted the global Net Zero agenda and pushed it down the list of priorities. We're faced with economic uncertainty but as civil engineers we should ensure that decarbonisation remains a vital agenda item. When organisations bounce back let's do so with Net Zero Carbon at the forefront."

" The ongoing coronavirus pandemic will most certainly have impacted the global Net Zero agenda and pushed it down the list of priorities. ”

Chris Landsburgh
Winnie Lai profile

Winnie Lai, Chairman of ICE Hong Kong Association, Graduates & Students Division, says the current crisis affords the industry the chance to advance the application of technologies. “The use of software such as Zoom, Skype and Microsoft Teams allows staff to be more flexible," says Winnie.

“Hard copies of documents and drawings could be replaced by the use of digital copies, BIM (Building Information Modelling) and VR. Not only are these methods more environmentally friendly, they are more effective and well-rounded for presentations, discussions and solution of issues.

“In some projects, skilled-workers could be substituted by robotic mechanisms such as welding with robotic arms. It could increase productivity and accuracy but some might express concern as robots currently lack the power of a person’s mind to make instant changes or decisions.”

Umar Malik blog

Umar Malik, a civil engineering apprentice with AECOM, says the company has taken steps to further the use of digital technologies. "One significant development is the use of 360 cameras to digitally capture site conditions," says Umar.

"This effectively creates a street view tour of your construction site. All that is required is an operative to carry out the survey, then all stakeholders will have access to a site tour – without needing to leave the office."

"This outbreak has acted as a catalyst for our industry to adopt new digital technologies," says Umar. "Now that we have proved that this model works, we should hopefully see the adoption of new technologies in the future that will yield multiple benefits and increase our efficiency."

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