What Does Artificial Intelligence Offer Masonry Design?

Words: Steven Hansen

Artificial intelligence, or AI, may evoke ideas of “The Matrix” and “Minority Report” movies and the infiltration of “big brother” into all areas of our lives, but the reality (for today, at least) is a lot better than that. What is artificial intelligence and how does it, and will it, impact the masonry industry?

AI is essentially a combination of computers that demonstrate and use intelligence. They can perform their tasks and learn along the way, so they improve over time, somewhat as humans do. They’re an evolution of many systems that we’re all familiar with and using already, and some of them are already mind-blowing and astoundingly useful. 

The benefits of the following technologies are welcome in helping mason contractors do better work, more safely, on schedule, and more profitably. Here are four distinct AI applications and why they’re great for the industry.

Unity Reflect 

This AI software tool connects varied BIM applications into one view, creating a real-time 3D model for multiple stakeholders. The Unity product can bring together a number of apps, including BIM, Navisworks, Revit, Sketchup, and Rhino. 

The gist of this approach is bringing together masses of data from the original models and their metadata, from those applications mentioned above, to produce a more comprehensive model that all stakeholders can see in real-time 3D. They can also see the model on multiple apps and platforms, including PCs, Macs, Android, iOS, VR, and AR. It’s collaborative and iterative, so all parties stay up to date with changes, knowing they’re all seeing the most current model. It’s a way to aggregate and integrate the data from many different tools to create a more usable model. 

With a more usable model, users/stakeholders should be able to continue to optimize the process downstream, such as minimizing later changes, scheduling, budgeting, and all the rest. 

Unity Reflect is a step forward in bringing all the data together in one model, and it also improves the process, especially for clients, who can be a stronger partner in getting their desired result by more completely understanding the design early on, before construction is actually done. 

The integration of VR and AR walkthroughs is also a huge advance for clients, as well. There’s just no substitute for standing in the virtual room and seeing how it all fits and feels, and seeing changes in real-time.

Photogrammetry Systems

This technology hasn’t gotten as much attention, it appears, like some other AI tech, but it’s incredibly useful in the field. Photogrammetry is all about using information from photographs to create 2D and 3D digital models.

Why would you do that? Creating an accurate site survey is crucial in construction projects, and photogrammetry provides a fast and affordable way to use a drone, high-resolution cameras, and a couple of trained workers to create a site model. This tech is great for more open sites and areas that are somewhat developed, and not as good for sites prior to clearing and with obstructions that prevent a good view of the structure being photographed.

Using photogrammetry entails getting the images, as mentioned above, then creating the model from those images. Compared to LiDAR, which is used for similar but not identical applications, the model created with photogrammetry is generally easier for humans to evaluate visually, making it a better choice to show clients, for example.

Drone-Based LiDAR

Like photogrammetry, but using lasers instead of cameras, LiDAR stands for “light detection and ranging.” This tech has been around for decades, and like RADAR, it bounces waves off objects in the environment, then creates a 3D model from that data. Rather than radio waves, though, LiDAR uses laser beams for incredible accuracy. And though it’s been available for years, LiDAR is at the forefront of technology now. It’s a big part of self-driving cars and gaming apps and is also used in new cell phones to gauge distance more accurately for photos and video apps. LiDAR delivers hyper-accurate mapping of the territory in 3D and creates a usable model that humans can work with/in.

Much like BIM creates a hyper-accurate 3D model of a design that’s not yet built, LiDAR creates a hyper-accurate model of an existing site or structure, also in BIM. Mounted to a drone, the LiDAR unit uses the laser beam to map millions of data points, each of which is geolocated. This model is called a point cloud, and the whole approach is a game-changer for working with as-built projects, as well as projects during construction.

LiDAR can “see” through existing vegetation, for example, and the drone provides accessibility that even a helicopter can’t match. There’s no need for cranes and lifts and hand measuring, permits, or any activities that can be more dangerous for the survey crew. For sites that are steep or rocky or otherwise inaccessible, LiDAR is the best way to get an accurate measurement. Using LiDAR is like going from a paper plan to BIM.

During construction, LiDAR is powerful at comparing progress against the BIM model or plan without, again, moving cranes or lifts and all that. It’s not only much more convenient than getting surveyors on-site but faster and more accurate.

LiDAR will tend to cost more than photogrammetry, though it’s more precise, and it does not produce a photorealistic site model that is easy for humans to evaluate, so there are instances where both LiDAR and photogrammetry are optimal on the same project.

In fact, combining the two technologies offers the hyper accuracy of LiDAR with the easier-to-understand imagery of photogrammetry. It’s more or less getting both types of imaging and combining them digitally so there’s a photorealistic digital model of the site and/or structure.

Hololens

Finally, virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality are components of artificial intelligence as experienced by the user. Microsoft’s Hololens headset is an example of this tech that’s actually been available for a few years now and has applications for all kinds of construction work.

Let’s get clear on the terms first. Virtual reality is all virtual, while augmented reality is a sort of “digital overlay” of physical reality. Mixed reality is more of a combination of those two experiences, with the user having some physical control of the digital world. 

The Hololens headset simply fits on your head and merges with your actions, sort of like a video game. In fact, virtual reality is probably most used for gaming right now, but other applications are available, and their use is growing. The headset’s sensors can pick up where you’re looking, use LiDAR to gauge distance, and so on. It’s reading your environment just as you are, as it’s reading you.

One company, Fologram, has demonstrated their version of augmented reality for bricklayers in a project in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. Check out the video for a demo. The team of masons used the company’s software with the Hololens to create complex curving walls without any printed plans. The masons worked as a team, with each wearing a headset and viewing augmented reality with the physical space in front of them overlaid with the plan. 

They worked mostly as usual but could see in real-time the holographic image of the wall with each brick for placement. They leveled each brick as normal, but the Hololens could “read” the placement of each brick in real-time. 

All tasks are potentially part of using the headset, such as placing rebar and cutting bricks. If an element can be added to the plan then the masons can see and work with it.

If you think about it, this sounds like a video game of masonry work, where what you see is a mashup of the plan you’re building and the solid bricks you’re handling, all in real-time. When you’ve placed a brick, you just look at it and the holographic image tells you that it’s perfectly placed, or needs adjustment. Think of the time savings, especially when applied across all trades. From site grading to plumbing to finish, it’s possible to imagine working only with AR plans in the future.

The future is bright!

These examples are currently in use, but many more applications for artificial intelligence are coming. AI is applicable to inspecting and classifying cracks in masonry buildings, for example, which will be especially useful in areas with earthquakes, subsidence, and so on. The list goes on, and the topic of job security for masons always comes up. With the world’s massive need for more construction, it appears that AI and other advanced technologies will improve the prospects for masonry construction jobs, especially for workers who know how to use the tech.

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