By Stephanie Nestor, Assistant Editor, Infrastructure Magazine

Around the globe many industries are already making use of artificial intelligence (AI) systems to automate operations. As this technology develops, there are plenty of opportunities for the construction, utility and transport sectors to save time, money and manpower. So what can AI offer the infrastructure sector?

Artificial intelligence (AI) technology is becoming widely adopted in a range of sectors as a tool to automate processes and services. In the infrastructure sector, AI systems are already being used for maintenance, security and unmanned operations.

AI is the ability of computers to replicate human thought by analysing data, making decisions and improving capabilities through experience. Creating an AI system involves machine learning, where AI utilises algorithms to identify patterns and gain insights from data, then uses that information to predict outcomes.

AI technology promises to help make better informed decisions faster, to improve planning, resource allocation, security, customer service and more, but AI is still an everevolving technology. Despite its potential, there are still plenty of risks and concerns alongside its capabilities. As the technology develops and becomes more regulated, what role will AI play in the infrastructure sector’s future?

New tools to play with

Businesses and organisations in the infrastructure sector are already experimenting with, and integrating, AI systems into their daily operations. Whether it is enhancing surveillance, generating content or assessing data, there are plenty of opportunities to use the technology.

For many sectors, language tools like ChatGPT can assist daily operations and decision-making by collecting and analysing vast amounts of data, generating copy, searching the internet, writing code, summarising information and more.

However, for the infrastructure sector, the most common application for AI is what is known as computer vision, where an AI system is combined with imagery or video – such as drones, cameras or sensors – to identify objects, collect information and respond to stimuli.

These systems are already in place across different sites and projects. For example, over 2,400 sensors have been deployed on the Sydney Harbour Bridge to monitor cracks and identify their causes – including vibrations, temperature or the weather.

Additionally, Brisbane and Botany Bay Ports have incorporated automated straddle carriers to move containers onto the back of trucks, without endangering any workers in the process. While this is only the beginning for AI technology in infrastructure, there are plenty of possibilities for the future.

Assisting the construction industry

AI can be incorporated into almost every phase of the construction process, from design to operation. AI tools can ensure knowledge is always current and up-to-date, even alerting developers with the latest information on products, features and regulations.

With its predictive capabilities, AI can assist during the bidding process by evaluating bidding documents, predicting the price of raw materials, analysing previous projects to ensure the contract is awarded to the right company, and ensure accurate estimates for budgets and timelines.

Once a project reaches the operation and maintenance phase, ensuring safety and efficiency is crucial. When utilised alongside cameras or sensors, AI can help with monitoring for performance issues, safety concerns or sudden faults – to prevent problems from getting out of hand on a project.

Improving safety in transportation

Implementing AI into transportation has the potential to improve safety, efficiency and maintenance. While self-driving vehicles are decades away, in the immediate future, AI can identify threats on the road and prevent accidents, keeping freight drivers and public transport passengers safe.

For freight and logistics, insights from data collected by AI systems can improve the frequency and efficiency of goods transported by vehicles – with a better understanding of weather and road conditions, drivers will know the best route to avoid delays.

Additionally, with AI systems monitoring the integrity of trucks, it can encourage predictive maintenance to ensure issues are caught before a vehicle is forced to be taken off the road and potentially cause further damage.

Enhancing customer service at airports

For airports, this technology can greatly benefit customer service. With better insights into weather conditions and equipment functionality, unexpected delays caused by storms or technical faults can be minimised by updating passengers sooner rather than later.

With more automated processes from check-in to boarding, this will help reduce overall waiting times for passengers, taking the weight off airport staff to deal with long queues and unexpected issues.

Additionally, when paired with video monitoring, AI can detect threats, such as intruders or weapons, and respond accordingly in real-time. For a human, it can be hard to discern a potentially dangerous individual in a huge crowd, but for AI, it is possible to scan crowds and make decisions in mere seconds.

Optimising port operations

AI is already being used in port management systems to automate cranes and container trucks. With the evolution of AI technology, more ports around Australia will adopt smart systems to optimise daily operations. AI’s predictive capabilities can deliver better weather forecasts and estimated departure and arrival times. Even in terms of maintenance, AI can be used alongside a digital twin to regularly monitor port infrastructure and keep on top of maintenance.

Maintaining reliable utilities

For utilities, AI has the potential to improve customer experience and asset management for energy and water providers. AI can be used to personalise customer service to understand how individual households and businesses use their energy and water, with algorithms to track monthly smart meter readings.

With accurate data, AI can assist with regulatory compliance to ensure providers are keeping on top of requirements by alerting them to possible faulty equipment, accidents or unplanned outages. Particularly for underground assets, it can be difficult to monitor deterioration or faults given the difficulty and costs associated with reaching those assets. Predictive maintenance using AI means utilities can save costs in the long-run by taking proactive measures to prevent damage.

Building better cities

With data collection and pattern recognition, AI can help urban planners design public spaces and buildings that are data-driven and meet the needs of communities.

Urban planners often have to handle large amounts of data and take into consideration the various needs of communities and industries, from transportation and traffic, to entertainment and recreation.

AI has the ability to process and analyse enormous amounts of data to find the optimal solution for designing public spaces and centres. It can also determine the best routes for traffic management, implement sustainable strategies, utilise smart utilities and create responsive environments.

Also, with predictive analysis, cities can be planned to account for population growth trends, environmental changes and changing infrastructure right from the beginning.

Navigating the risks

As a continually-developing technology, there are inevitably risks and concerns associated with using AI. The ones that could affect the infrastructure sector include physical safety, privacy, financial performance, security and costs.

According to the Equinix 2023 Global Tech Trends Survey, 42 per cent of IT leaders around the world are reluctant to integrate AI technology. This independent study surveyed almost 3,000 IT specialists around the world and found that many were not ready to adopt AI solutions because of a lack of necessary infrastructure, training, regulations and costs.

In Australia, there is a little more optimism with 35 per cent of IT leaders feeling unprepared to introduce AI systems. Implementing AI systems is not cheap, with digital systems often requiring considerable costs for businesses that only become more expensive with large infrastructure sites and projects.

Incorporating this new technology into construction, utilities, and more, will require upgrading old systems, which limits the feasibility of delivering AI solutions across industries. Additionally, an overreliance on AI can lead to injury or harm as it is not at the stage where it can respond appropriately to all new stimuli.

A wrong judgement from an AI system could injure a worker, miss signs of faulty equipment or put the public at risk, which is why it is important for humans to monitor these systems. Particularly for transportation and using heavy machinery, accidents are still likely to happen, – with or without AI systems – due to the danger that comes with using heavy vehicles and equipment.

Incorporating AI systems into an already precarious environment will require skill training and rigorous risk assessment to prevent accidents from happening.

Keeping data secure

Privacy is another big concern as AI must be trained on data, which may not always be publicly available or legal to use. If a customer’s private information is used to train AI systems without consent, organisations can be found liable in court of breaching privacy laws.

But for organisations and businesses using their own data, there is always the risk that this information is not securely stored when incorporated with AI systems. While AI can help make data-driven decisions, they are not guaranteed to be the best decisions. If data collected by AI systems is not current or accurate, this can lead to poor decision-making and potential financial losses.

Additionally, many organisations are involved with government agencies to oversee significant infrastructure projects. If data is compromised, or the wrong person utilises AI systems, that could possibly threaten national security.

The threat of automation

While costs, security and safety are key concerns for the infrastructure sector, the main concern for all industries when it comes to AI is the loss of jobs to automation. Fortunately for the infrastructure sector, AI is not much of a threat to jobs, as most positions cannot be completed with AI alone.

Goldman Sachs released a report that predicts generative AI has the potential to automate over 300 million jobs in Europe and the US3.

While legal, IT, administration, marketing, architecture and other similar jobs are expected to be automated, jobs in the infrastructure sector are mostly safe, with jobs in maintenance, utilities, agriculture, mining and manufacturing to be the least impacted.

New future of possibility

Encouraging different employment opportunities and skillbuilding will ensure workers are not replaced but assisted by AI systems. In fact, there will be more opportunities in the future for AI specialists who can set up and manage systems.

AI is still in its infancy, but in the next few years and decades, AI will become incorporated into more processes and operations in the infrastructure sector. Ensuring AI is a tool that can be used effectively and safely, without replacing workers, will require more development, experimentation, regulation and investment. The future – and the potential of AI – is just around the corner.

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