Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Remote construction workers? This is the Zoom of the building sector

Automation is coming to the job site. So is remote work.

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In many areas, construction is being deemed an essential service amid ongoing shelter-in-place restrictions. While there are obvious aspects of building that do require an in-person presence on a job site, it may surprise you that there are many jobs in construction that might be done remotely.

But unlike many sectors where working remotely has been embraced for years, construction has always been an in-person gig. That's changing. 

"Even prior to the current pandemic," says Jeevan Kalanithi, CEO of OpenSpace and an industry expert, whom I reached out to for insights, "we were beginning to see wider adoption of digital tools on jobsites, including those that enable remote work, like photo documentation. It's likely that the situation we're in now will lead to an acceleration in the adoption of these types of technologies, but this is the direction that the industry was heading in regardless."

With the pandemic forcing companies to adopt an arsenal of remote work technologies, it makes sense that the construction industry, too, is looking for ways to keep as few people on site as possible. As Kalanithi points out, there had already been a major technological shift underway in the industry as big data, AI, and automation, along with automation-adjacent technologies like drones, saw broad adoption. 

In the short term, we probably won't be sending teleoperated robots to the job site while human workers stay home and control them from their couch, at least not anytime soon, but there are tools to help some workers stay at home. 

Kalinthini's company OpenSpace, which we've been tracking since it came out of stealth in 2018, offers a photo-documentation solution that allows builders to walk a job site with a small camera on their hardhat. The solution then automatically handles the capture, uploading, and organization of those images. The result is a navigable, "Google Street View"-like experience, made possible by computer vision that can be viewed and analyzed from anywhere, bringing the job site to remote workers.

"Similar to how telehealth will improve accessibility by bringing the doctor to the patient," says Kalanthini, "rather than the other way around, we believe that "tele-building" will soon take off to scale the expertise of our superintendents, project managers, inspectors, and foremen. If your captures of the site are high-quality, you can reduce the amount of in-person visits needed, saving time and money, as well as improving knowledge transfer."

In other words, project managers, clients, and inspectors -- all workers who would normally work on-site -- can digitally stroll through a job and easily move backward in time to track progress throughout a build using the company's framework without showing up in person. That has huge safety implications under normal circumstances, and especially during a global health crisis like the one we find ourselves in the midst of.

"The best way to stay safe is to not be on the jobsite. Of course, in construction, if nobody is on site, then no work gets done."

In a bid to help construction companies during the pandemic, OpenSpace is offering an early release of OpenSpace Photo, a basic manual version of their product, for free.