Construction’s new building blocks: 5G, drones, and sensor-equipped wearables.

Construction can be a dirty, dangerous, and difficult business. The challenges include worker and supply shortages, ever-changing rules and regulations, and rising interest rates. And as supply-chain disruptions fueled inflation, construction costs jumped 14 percent during 2022, putting a squeeze on profitability.

The impacts have been especially acute in rural areas where, as a result of these factors, the supply of new housing dropped in recent years. In the second half of 2022, the Council of State Governments noted that many rural areas have been “disproportionately impacted” by a lack of affordable housing. In response, the federal government is taking steps to boost the availability of rural housing—both single-family construction and more than 8,000 multi-family units—as part of the Housing Supply Action Plan.

There’s additional reason for optimism: Sensors, drones, IoT, and other digital technologies are modernizing the construction industry’s tool belt. 5G wireless networks can provide vital connections to remote job sites far from management offices in metropolitan areas, helping project managers build faster and more cost-effectively. And 5G can do that while also helping to establish a safer work environment through enhanced wearable technology and video monitoring.

Bird’s-eye view of construction site showing how drones are used with 5G.

On-site construction drone inspections help save time and money.

5G can enable a range of drone applications for around-the-clock monitoring. These flying robots can be used before, during, and after construction to track equipment and inventories of supplies, or to conduct work-in-progress inspections. For instance, a project manager can evaluate an area for hazardous materials or, using hyperspectral sensors, for underground substances.

Construction drones can lessen the need for inspectors to visit the workplace in person, helping to save time and money. They can also be used to monitor widely dispersed equipment for theft prevention.

Especially in scenarios involving highly-coordinated tasks over large areas, rural construction teams could employ 5G-enabled drones for more timely and precise deliveries to human teams, safety inspections, and security monitoring during jobs or after hours.

Video analytics offers insight into productivity, safety, and compliance.

Video surveillance and analytics, supported by 5G connectivity, are emerging capabilities with a range of possible uses at rural construction sites. Video cameras can be deployed to monitor potential safety issues such as improperly stacked pallets, fuel leaks, or reactive chemicals stored too closely together.

With high-quality streaming and very low latency, video can be analyzed for productivity milestones, against maintenance schedules, or to ensure safety and regulatory compliance standards. And the efficiencies from AI-enabled smart video analytics—also known as computer vision—add up quickly when used for tasks such as timekeeping, material tracking, and incident reporting.

Another emerging use case is employing remote cameras—in some cases, integrated with drones—with 5G connectivity to monitor construction sites, in lieu of traditional Wi-Fi with its limited range.

3D illustration of construction workers wearing IoT sensors that can detect dangerous conditions or machinery, trigger alarms, or track health or environmental data.

5G-enabled wearables can enhance worker safety amid potential hazards.

Despite significant improvements in industry safety, accidents are an ongoing concern in construction. In 2020, there were 1,034 fatal work incidents in the construction industry, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

5G offers new ways to address the risks. Digital sensors attached to hard hats, belts, boots, vests, and wristbands can alert workers to potentially hazardous situations. For example, in addition to providing physical protection, sensor-equipped “smart” hard hats can be used for hands-free audio and video calls or to detect moving equipment.

5G-enabled wearable sensors can recognize when a worker enters a restricted location—referred to as geo-fencing—under potentially hazardous circumstances. Additionally, alarms set off by wearables can notify emergency response teams or jobsite managers of potential risks. And biometric sensors can monitor a worker’s heart rate, breathing, and other vital signs and summon help if needed.

Connectivity, construction, and the comforts of home.

While the economics of construction are complex, the growing pervasiveness of 5G networks along highways and across rural areas will continue to give builders and nonurban communities a powerful way to address these challenges.

New digital approaches enabled by 5G can help rural construction become cleaner, safer, and more data-driven, on the job site and on the road. As that happens, more families may be able to find a place to call home.

Ready to start building your 5G future?