Civil engineering has always been a field that quickly adopts and provokes advances in technology. Since the earliest days of engineering, technological advances have pushed the building of structures and infrastructural elements beyond previous limits. In the ancient world, civil engineers in the Roman Empire made good use of ultra-strong arches. The arch is an immensely strong shape – far stronger than the squared openings used by engineers before its adoption. Romans used arches to construct buildings with far more favorable opening-to-height ratios than any that had been built previously. Evidence of this technological innovation in civil engineering can be easily seen by people visiting the mighty colosseum in Rome, one of the wonders of the ancient world.
The age of exploration and colonization bought with it a great many new mathematical concepts: Newton’s laws of motion and calculus are just two examples. You can no doubt recite Newton’s laws off the top of your head, they’ve so permeated our cultural understanding of the development of mathematics. These mathematical discoveries provoked a whole wave of technological advances in civil engineering. The industrial revolution supplemented these advances with the emergence of new industrial technologies and construction techniques.
Engineering never stands still. Modern advances in civil engineering technology are undoubtedly being driven by the emergence of machine learning and smart digital technologies. It would be a foolish endeavor to try and list every emergent technology being put to use by civil engineers around the world: there are just too many to keep track of. Instead, this article focuses on a few of the most important developments. Here are some of the most important new types of technology used in civil engineering. Budding engineers, take note!
Drones – Unmanned Arial Vehicles controlled remotely – are becoming more affordable and easier to operate. The proliferation of drones has had a big impact on the civil engineering field. Drones offer an affordable way for engineering managers to take flight and view sites in real time. In previous decades, this privilege was only afforded to engineering managers who were working on projects that could budget for helicopter and pilot rental services. Drones are used for three main reasons within civil engineering:
Civil engineers have always been tasked with the creation of detailed topographical maps. The creation of a site map enables engineers and construction managers to properly assign resources and correctly adjust for topographical anomalies. Drones are making this work increasingly simple. Software like Trimble Stratus allows footage from a drone to be georeferenced – helping to produce highly detailed topographical maps that are incredibly up to date. This kind of drone-assisted mapping helps to reduce the number of construction errors and increase the efficiency of planning.
Engineers who are studying for a Masters in engineering management online will learn the importance of conducting regular progress checks on a project. In the past, these checks were conducted by halting a project and conducting an on-the-ground audit of works. With the help of drones, civil engineering managers no longer need to halt work on a project to check on progress indicators. Drones can deliver real-time information about the status of a site without interfering in construction or surveying. This can drastically increase the efficiency of a project while maintaining a manager’s oversight.
Health And Safety
Drones can play a large part in keeping a site safe for workers and engineers. Drones can be sent to survey sites where human surveying may be dangerous. They can also be tasked with the real-time observation of people engaged in critical dangerous work so that any accidents can be reported immediately, limiting the possibility of a fatal injury.
Concrete is one of the most important building materials used today. It has ancient origins. The material was first developed by the ancient Romans, who used volcanic ash to mix a concrete that is considered to be extremely strong and which still survives in some buildings created by the ancient Italian imperialists. Like everything in civil engineering, the development of concrete never stands still for long. The latest development in the world of concrete has been the invention of a self-healing mix.
Traditional concrete is very prone to cracking when exposed to water and chemicals. This can cause huge problems and seriously undermine the ability of modern concrete structures to resist external forces over time. Self-healing concrete is a fascinating creation. Researchers at the University of Bath have experimented with the creation of concrete containing thousands of microcapsules, each containing a bacterial organism. These bacterial organisms germinate when exposed to water, filling the cracks caused by water damage. This is a unique biomechanical method of material development.
The development of self-healing concrete could have a huge impact on civil engineering all over the world. Around half of the world’s buildings are made at least in part of concrete. The production of concrete is hugely polluting. By reducing the amount of concrete needed for repairs, self-healing bacterial concrete could seriously reduce the carbon footprint of civil engineering. It also guarantees long-term structural soundness in damp conditions, something that has proven a problem for engineers in the past.
The idea of modular construction in design and engineering is not entirely new. The 1980s saw a huge influx of architectural designs based around modular structures – but these were often doomed to fail due to poor uses of technology and institutional funding issues. The appeals of modular design are obvious: simplicity, ease of construction, ease of repair, and ease of planning. Actually creating a modular structure that serves these purposes is difficult.
3D modeling software has recently been introduced that makes modular design far easier to bring to fruition with some degree of success. Using software, an architect can develop modules that perfectly suit an environment without the possibility of error. They can then share their files with a senior civil engineer instantly: allowing an engineering audit to take place long before construction is approved. Modular construction has recently found popularity in China, the United States of America, and the United Kingdom.
3D printing – otherwise known as additive manufacturing – is a method of construction wherein components are produced by an automated machine adding materials according to a design contained on special software. The technology was first developed in the 1980s but did not proliferate until the advent of cheaper computers and Computer-Aided Design software in the 2000s. In theory, large-scale 3D printing machines could be used to create highly accurate and resilient structures without human error. Indeed, civil engineers have been experimenting with the 3D printing of structures for several years, and the first fully printed buildings have already been created.
There are some issues that need to be ironed out before 3D printed structures can be truly embraced by civil engineers and stakeholders alike. At the current time, 3D additive printing can only be achieved using a small subset of materials, such as concrete and plastic. This means that it would be incredibly hard to complete an entire project using this method. The expense of a large-scale 3D printing machine is also vast, which tends to put stakeholders off making the initial investment. As technology proliferates, however, it is likely that large-scale 3D printing will become cheaper and more accessible. This automation allows civil engineers to have more control over a project and avoid human error. It does, however, remove the human reporting element that is so essential in the construction of buildings and infrastructure.
3D printers are already being put into use by large engineering and construction firms – although, they are currently limited to very modest projects. A Chinese firm has drawn up plans for the creation of ultra-cheap housing, which will be printed for around 5000 dollars per unit.
Photovoltaic cells have been in use for many years now. They are the element used in solar panels to convert sunlight into Direct Current energy. There is a growing list of designs for an even more ambitious use of photovoltaic cells: a photovoltaic glaze. By integrating photovoltaic cells into glass, paint, or tile, scientists are hoping to create a material that can cover the entire surface of a structure. This would allow houses, dams, roads, and public buildings to produce a huge percentage of the electricity that they use.
As with many of the latest technological developments destined for the civil engineering industry, photovoltaic glaze is an innovation intended to reduce the carbon footprint of completed projects. The world is in crisis. As the climate warms and fossil fuels run out, it is more important than ever to design buildings that rely less upon problematic electrical power grids. The widespread adoption of photovoltaic glaze could indicate a huge step in the right direction.
Gone are the days when engineers and architects would have to make do with 2D blueprints and schematics when planning a project. Modern software enables the quick and efficient production of 3D models that can be used to accurately simulate project stages. This has been an immense leap forward.
The development of Virtual Reality technology is having a huge impact on the fields of architecture and civil engineering. Virtual Reality can allow a person to take a ‘virtual tour’ of a 3D model. This enables progress reporting to be completed more accurately. Stakeholders can also be updated effectively so that they can understand just what impact engineering choices will have on their commissions. Architects and engineers can use Virtual Reality-accessed models to communicate their proposed ideas in the most realistic and easily understandable way possible.
VR technology does not have to be expensive. Products like Google Cardboard allow any smartphone user with a headset to access immersive 3D maps. Combined with accurate topographical mapping and good reporting, VR is a powerful tool in the hands of an experienced civil engineer.
While the electricity that can be produced using kinetic walkways is rather meager in quantity, there is far more kinetic energy being transferred from vehicles onto road surfaces all over the world. Several start-up engineering companies have developed systems that harness this energy. This is very promising technology, but it will only see widespread use if governments are willing to make significant investments in infrastructure and cause significant initial transportation delays. One thing is clear: the way in which humankind harvests energy needs to change.
Thermal resistance is one of the most important ways of measuring a structure’s energy efficiency. In traditional structures built using regular insulator materials, a great deal of the heat finding its way into a wall is transferred directly into the structure. This is obviously not great and means that buildings have to be cooled and heated artificially using electricity or the burning of fossil fuels.
Thermal bridging – first developed by the US space agency NASA during cryogenic experiments – involves the integration of a material into a wall that is deliberately designed to be extremely conductive to heat. This layer can then be used to transfer heat away from a building or transfer it into an area where it can be used for heating. Innovative civil engineers can now design composite construction materials that incorporate a thermal bridge: something that ultimately reduces the carbon footprint of a project and pleases stakeholders.
Engineers have been seeking innovative new ways to generate electricity during the planning of large-scale infrastructure projects. One wonderful new concept involves the harnessing of kinetic energy produced by footfall. Kinetic footfall tiles work using electromagnetic induction. A constant stream of footfall produces a reasonably small – but still significant – amount of electrical charge, which is then stored using flywheels. These unique tiles would not be suitable for low footfall areas: they simply would not be able to produce a worthwhile amount of electricity. They are, however, being incorporated into transportation hub plans. Transportation hubs experience high levels of constant footfall, increasing the cost efficiency of installing expensive kinetic generation walkways.