Skip to content
Civil Engineer blog

21st century construction: is this the age of automation?

21 December 2022

At the 2022 Unwin lecture, Professor Sarah Sharples and Annette Pass explained how technology can increase safety and productivity onsite.

21st century construction: is this the age of automation?
Automation can have massive benefits on the quest for net zero, safety and efficiency and productivity. Image credit: Cohenbaum

Rapidly advancing technology presents as many opportunities for the construction industry as it does challenges.

Technology and automation can massively improve processes, but integrating technology into an industry that, for years, has relied on the manual skills of humans, can prove tricky.

The 2022 Unwin lecture was on ‘21st century construction: the age of automation’.

Professor Sarah Sharples, chief scientific adviser for the Department of Transport, and Annette Pass, head of innovation at National Highways, shared their research on how technology can create a more productive and safer construction site.

They offered insight on how this can change the way civil engineers design and build infrastructure, with a particular focus on transport infrastructure.

Why automate?

Helping us reach net zero

Automating construction processes can have huge benefits on the quest for net zero, safety, efficiency and productivity.

Automated, self-driving vehicles, such as driverless shuttle buses, are starting to emerge in the highways space. These vehicles have a reduced carbon output, supporting net zero targets among other benefits.

Automated processes can also allow vehicles to drive more safely, removing certain risks present with human drivers.

Eliminating risks

There are also risks associated with site workers that automation can help to eliminate.

On the highways, for example, road traffic inventories could be undertaken safely and efficiently using video and AI technologies, meaning workers no longer have to face the risk of walking along the busy roads.

Productivity and efficiency

Productivity can be hugely improved by automated processes, often allowing for greater speed, efficiency and accuracy. For example, by using automatic diggers.

The use of modular construction to produce major construction programmes can also reduce the time needed to complete a project without compromising on the quality.

Budgets and timelines can often be produced more accurately using technology and automation.

Having alternative ways to complete these tasks also goes some way to resolving other industry issues, such as the aging workforce.

That doesn’t mean replacing humans, however. Sharples said: “Humans are fallible, and humans are brilliant, and our job is to minimise the impact of human fallibility but maximise the value of human brilliance.”

How to automate

To further the use of technology and automation, the industry must collaborate under the direction of strong leadership.

It’s also important to understand how to specify the technology on sites, what it needs and who’s responsible.

To do this, a values-based approach to automation in transport should be taken. The following factors make up this approach:

  • Safe by design: Embedding thinking about people as early as possible in the design process is key. To avoid the ‘ironies of automation’ engineers mustn’t design technology in isolation of the infrastructure it’s going to be used on.
  • Openness: It won’t be right first time, so the industry needs to be open to learn. A culture where data and information can be shared, and insight and learning are used to inform the future, is vital.
  • Inclusion: There can be biases and disadvantages, so as automation is introduced, diversity must be considered through listening to feedback from a range of people and embedding it into the technologies.
  • Ambition: The industry must consider how it can embrace the opportunities that automation technologies afford.
  • System: Everything is a complex system, but transport is part of multiple sectors and a larger system, so a systems-based thinking approach is vital.

By supporting research into technology and automation as an industry, policy and delivery of transport systems can be better informed.

The use of technology and automation can be accelerated, to the benefit of the industry.

The Unwin Lecture

The Unwin Lecture was created in 1948, with the objective of focusing on engineering research and how technology can impact the capability of civil engineers.

Watch the lecture recording

  • Amy Lilly, knowledge content producer at ICE