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Future Technology: What to look out for in 2015

Advances in technology are rapidly changing the way many people are doing their jobs. That’s certainly been the case at NCE, particularly this past year, which has culminated in the launch of our latest digital content option - a fully responsive, revamped, news-oriented app for Apple and Android devices.

The increasingly varied ways we bring you NCE content is a reflection of the evolution in publishing and the fact that not everyone waits patiently each week to peel open a polythene wrapped print magazine.

Many prefer little and often taps on their mobile or tablet devices to get a brief insight into what’s going on in the wider world, ponder over a technical feature, or pinch and zoom in on eye-catching graphics and images.

The fact that so many people in civil engineering have leapfrogged desktop technology and adopted mobile technology that suits a mobile site-hopping, client-visiting world means it is a profession perhaps most adept at embracing even wilder technological advances. Six years ago NCE along with sister titles Architects’ Journal and Construction News asked readers what the greatest advance was in construction’s history. While cranes and the theodolite put up a good fight, overall Computer Aided Design (CAD), and its natural bedfellow Computer Aided Manufacture, won.

Working with machines has become second nature for civil engineers. Despite the recent grim prediction by eminent physicist Stephen Hawking that artificial intelligence could bring about the demise of humans, it is unlikely that robots are set to take over everything we do. Civil engineers will not be replaced by robots any sooner than the rest of the human race is. But because clients have begun asking more of you in this area - you are comfortable with the technology.

The government’s pledge to incorporate building information modelling (BIM) wholesale across public building projects - even at a relatively basic level - is being seen globally as a bold and trendsetting move. In its simplest form you could see this as a mere professional crowdsourcing of information and models that are already part of your professional daily life.

There are more mind-boggling advances that engineers are trying to get out ahead of. Because, frankly, mega-billionaire entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley and elsewhere may steal the limelight with ever fantastical, well-funded infrastructure solutions if they don’t.

Glow in the dark: What is claimed to be a world cycle path opened in the Netherlands in November

Glow in the dark: What is claimed to be a world cycle path opened in the Netherlands in November

All the key civil and structural engineering sectors - transport, buildings, water, energy, flooding and the list goes on - are ideal stomping grounds for great gains to be made.

There are obvious headline grabbing transformations: the potential for 3D printing to impart great efficiencies in construction - from small components to full scale replicable houses printed on site; hyperloop rail travel - where hyperfast capsules could transport passengers between the two cities in a fraction of the regular travel time; drones taking to the skies to capture information and even help with intricate construction processes in hard to reach sites; autonomous vehicles easing pressure on creaking road infrastructure; solar roads that could power electric vehicles; glow in the dark pathways; self-healing concrete; self-erecting bridges - the list goes on.

While headline grabbing can be distracting - and NCE will not hold back on reporting the latest brave new ideas that could shape what you do - there are a number of technology driven evolutions that are perhaps more subtle, but which could offer the biggest opportunities.

At a recent NCE meeting with future technology free thinkers, many visionary and bonkers ideas were discussed. The greatest consensus about what technology would be fully embraced by engineers rested with digital engineering - otherwise known as the industrialisation of construction processes - and data, or rather big data.

Both build on work that has already been heralded in civil engineering - offsite construction and its obvious quality and health and safety benefits. Also data is already what engineers look for to inform their designs and the construction of something new.

Both are set to take centre stage as clients demand better and safer working all the while. And, because particularly in the UK, the benefits of gathering greater and more useful information will improve asset management and forward planning.

A couple of notes of caution - the pure skills of civil engineers must not be overshadowed or played down - already many senior engineers can be heard, rightly, bemoaning the next generation’s over-reliance on computer programs to design their work, without truly understanding the maths and physics behind it. That fight must not be lost. In addition, engineers will have to become increasingly aware of the greater issues - not least the difficulties surrounding management of big data - cyber security threats among them.

Skanska Infrastructure Services managing director Gregor Craig sums it up well: “Civil engineers need to know enough to manage the technology suppliers and experts but not enough that it will turn them into the technology experts,” he said.

15 futuristic happenings from 2014 - and to follow in 2015

As seen in NCE - in print, downloadable digital issue, online or in app

4 December Greenwich, Milton Keynes, Coventry and Bristol are awarded a total of £10M in government f15 Futuristic happenings from 2014 - and to follow in 2015unding to test driverless cars.

24 November Skanska hails a new era of engineering after signing a deal to use 3D concrete printing technology developed at Loughborough University.

13 November The world’s first glow in the dark cycle lane, a 1.5km path featuring Smart Highway technology, opens in The Netherlands. Its opening coincided with the unveiling of the first Dutch solar cycle lane - also thought to be a world first - in Haarlem.

11 November Imperial College London reveals it is to build a new £1.3M laboratory to develop drones as the technology becomes increasingly appealing for engineering and construction. Construction of the facility will begin in 2016.

14 October Trials of the world’s first “electric highway” in California are set to start. Trucks will use overhead cables for power along a 3km stretch of road in Carson.

2 October Seven Trent Water begins using human excrement to fuel homes in the Birmingham area.

15 September Another world first as the two storey Wikihouse is erected in just two days by a team of volunteers drawn from structural engineer Arup and architect Architect OO. Aimed at self builders, “Wikihouse 4.0” uses open source design software downloaded from the internet.

12 September Dutch engineers unveil a radical idea for a tilting lock to allow tall sailing boats to pass under bridges without them having to lift.

22 July High Speed 2 technical director Andrew McNaughton tells NCE he’s asked his engineers for a “3D printed embankment” and calls on civil engineers to innovate more to remain relevant.

24 June An Arup report on railways of the future predicts that robot drones will carry out predictive maintenance of railways.

10 June University of Cambridge engineers create what they refer to as the world’s first “smart tunnel” through the development of a new monitoring system installed on an old London rail tunnel.

21 May US-based Solar Roadway says test results show a new solar cell road surface being developed could be used to power electric vehicles.

27 January Mats made from recycled car tyres are revealed as the latest development in scour protection for offshore wind turbine foundations.


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