Robots, drones, 3D printing- the building sector isn't just bricks and mortar anymore...

That’s the view of a company peering into the future. In more than 30 years’ time, artificial intelligence and smart materials might be a feature of modern building sites, says Innovation 2050, a report by Balfour Beatty Homes. 


In the not too distant past, plans were hand drawn on paper, much more work was done manually and health and safety was sketchy. Even in the 1990s it was rude to make personal phone calls on site. Now smartphones and tablets are indispensable on site, helping staff transmit plans, use 3D software, take pictures and allow for instant decisions.

Building companies now need people with skills that weren’t even heard of 20 years ago. As the sector becomes more and more digitised, firms may be more likely to recruit drone pilots than bricklayers. Robots are already being piloted for manual, repetitive or dangerous tasks. We look at some current technologies transforming the sector and take a view of what may lie ahead. 


Building information modelling (BIM) uses computer software to create a virtual 3D model of a future building, whether it’s an office block, a suspension bridge or a power station, says Mott MacDonald. As the 3D model is online, the whole project team can look at an up-to-date model and collaborate quickly and effectively. Designing a project in a 3D environment helps both the design team and client to visualise it and aim for a ‘right first time’ approach.

BIM also helps cut the amount of materials needed. It’s transforming building methods by using technology to make it cleaner, safer and quicker. And BIM models provide an accurate record of the building or structure which can be used and referred to long after construction is over.


Data science is about extracting useful knowledge directly from data, helping people make more informed decisions and making building projects more efficient.

In New Zealand, Mott MacDonald has developed a system which visualises the performance of water infrastructure, for instance, helping it function as well as possible and allowing for timely and targeted maintenance works.



Drones – unmanned aerial vehicles – are transforming construction sites. They can monitor progress on large scale projects, possibly in remote locations and transmit live feeds for project teams – which could be enhanced with virtual reality glasses. Inspecting a building site can be dangerous and difficult – drones can look at inaccessible areas and pick up on any potential hitches. Surveyors use them to view conditions of roofs and other hard-to-reach zones. They can also take thermal imaging recordings to give essential information on a structure’s cold and hot spots.


Concrete and steel are currently at the heart of the industry. But will the future bring smart materials, asks Innovation 2050. Buildings that are connected to other buildings and to what’s around them might become part of smart cities of the future.


While robotics have huge potential, they’re expensive, though costs will inevitably fall in the future as the technology becomes more commonplace. While much manual labour is becoming mechanised – bricklaying robots are already at work in the US - will artificial intelligence play a part too? Could machines begin to make decisions – now made by humans - using better data and predictive analytics?


China has already printed a 3D two storey house, and Dubai has opened the world’s first 3D printed office – though we don’t yet know how resilient these buildings will prove. Will industrial printing provide tailor made houses? In the future could self-transforming objects – allowing building to change according to requirements – become a reality?


Building sites today are far safer places thanks to regulations, greater awareness and safer machinery. Could wearable technology and protective clothing help monitor conditions and the health of construction workers? 


For more information on careers in construction, visit our partners at NOCN.




Technology, CareersEmily Baulf