In recent decades, the construction industry has grown increasingly efficient, more collaborative, and safer thanks to the forward-thinking use of technologies like Computer Aided Design and Building Information Modeling.
Siyuan Xiang, a Ph.D. student who conducts research in Tandon’s Automation and Intelligence for Civil Engineering (AI4CE) Lab under the direction of Assistant Professor Chen Feng, is exploring ways in which the industry can go even farther. Leveraging augmented reality (AR), she says, could make it easier to manage complex building sites, meet project deadlines, and mitigate hazardous working conditions.
Xiang has been involved in a AI4CE project dubbed AI-powered and Robot-assisted Manufacturing for Modular Construction (ARM4MOD), which won funding from the National Science Foundation and is aimed at finding ways to perform modular construction at scale. (Modular construction refers to a process whereby a building is constructed off-site in sections or modules that are later put together on-site; the process is faster since modules can be built while the site is being prepared and greener since it creates less waste.)
“All building projects are unique, but the goal is always to be as efficient and accurate as possible, Xiang explains. “Our group is working at the intersection of artificial intelligence, robotics, building information modeling and manufacturing to optimize and standardize the design of modules. Ultimately, the strides we make could be applied to other heavy industries that share similar challenges such as agricultural, mining, and shipbuilding, and they could contribute to making the U.S. more competitive, the economy stronger, and workers more productive.”
Xiang’s areas of expertise encompass computer vision (which allows working robots to “see” in order to navigate obstacles and manipulate tools and materials) and AR. “There are times when it would be very helpful for workers on-site to be able, in effect, to ‘see through walls,’ in order to place components correctly, avoid damaging existing features such as pipes and switches, or check actual progress against the building plan,” she says. “That’s where AR comes in. Even though many people still think of the technology in terms of video gaming and entertainment, it has the strong potential to transform the construction industry.”
Xiang — who earned a bachelor’s degree in Geospatial Engineering from Wuhan University and a master’s degree from Nanyang Technological University’s School of Computer Science and Engineering — had long been interested in using computer vision for manufacturing applications. She was attracted to NYU Tandon, in large part, for the chance to study with Feng, widely acknowledged as a leading researcher in the field. She anticipates defending her thesis in October and has already planned her next steps: she recently accepted a job offer from Amazon, where she will conduct research on computer vision for intelligent robots.
“Many people think civil engineers just build roads and bridges,” she says, “but really our focus is on structures that can enhance people’s lives. In my case that will mean making sure robots can operated safely and efficiently indoors, which is where the majority of us spend most of our time.”