As originally published in the Florida Specifier

By Leo Cannyn, PMP, P.E., ENV SP
Principal Project Manager
Beryl Project Engineering

Gone are the days of slide rules and compasses. Today, structural engineering is much more complicated, and the demand on engineers has driven the need for new ways to complete tasks more efficiently and cost-effectively.

From drones to thermal imaging and the latest design software, technology is continually improving and driving the industry forward. These innovations are applied in the fields of safety, sustainability, and detailed structural design techniques. Whether it’s by incorporating more energy-efficient materials into the design or using pioneering tools to determine building safety after a significant wind event, productivity and effective processes are critical to the success of any business,

Structural engineers have access to some of the most innovative tools and advancements in the field and are solving some significant challenges. The innovative technology changes we see today allow the structural engineering field to engage more actively as buildings become more complex. However, with the speed of these advancements, structural engineering professionals must stay informed to adapt and ensure they are using best practices.

With innovative tools and advancements in software appearing every year, here are two industry-changing examples of technology used in structural engineering today:

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or Drones

The capability of drones to be programmed to work on various tasks has made this technology one of the more significant advancements for many industries. Previously reserved for military use, drones are now used across many disciplines and promise the fastest and most accurate collection of detailed data. Additionally, the technology that powers a drone is advancing at a rapid pace, allowing it to be used for increasingly complex needs.

Structural engineers use drones to take high-resolution aerial photos of potential construction sites or areas that have sustained significant damage after a natural disaster. The survey technician can then obtain data points and create a three-dimensional model. The images captured not only provide an incredibly accurate visual representation, but also shorten the time these same tasks would have taken using traditional methods.

Drones are most useful for sites with limited access or an immediate need to assess potential damage to a structure. For example, wetlands, dense forests, and steeply sloped areas are difficult to survey. Drones perform risky jobs and have improved worker safety. According to OSHA, one in five worker deaths in the private sector in 2019 were in construction. Additionally, only one drone operator is needed to perform various tasks, which increases overall safety and becomes financially beneficial to the cost of the project.

Drone mapping services allow a highly detailed and accurate view of a job site. Information is gathered and used to document the condition of a structure before any renovation or rehabilitation takes place. Drones can also be used to spot dangerous aspects of the job site, freeing personnel from exposure to toxic elements or unstable structures.

Drones and the technology that supports them have provided many advancements in the field of structural engineering and design. They effectively support:

  • Roadway assessment
  • Building inspections
  • Roof inspections
  • Site reconnaissance

Thermal Imaging or Infrared Thermography

Whether a condo, townhouse, single-family, or multifamily home, a thermal imaging scan can help owners avoid unexpected and costly surprises. It’s an industry that is anticipated to grow to $4.7 billion globally by 2026. Although not quite like X-ray vision, thermal cameras help identify construction defects and other problems that cause damage.

Thermal imaging is heat imaging and is a process that involves technology used to look at warm and cold heat signatures. The camera presents a color scale showing relative temperature differences, with red or white as the warmest and blue or purple as the coldest.

Thermal imaging allows the user to gather data and analyze an object in a non-destructive way to accurately diagnose the condition and behavior of many aspects of a building, revealing any structural flaws. For example, moisture detection, water infiltration, cracks, voids, and heat loss or air leakage is detected with the use of thermal imaging.

Although detecting leaks significantly benefit homeowners, determining construction quality or performance may be a better use of thermal imaging. During construction or renovation, thermal cameras allow builders to document energy performance early in the project stage. Any detection of potential issues enables adjustments to be made. For example, it is much more cost effective to discover the radiant heating system is not connected and operational before expensive flooring is installed. Early visibility saves the project from incurring additional expenses caused by costly mistakes.

Common areas to inspect with thermal imaging:

  • Ceilings
  • Exterior walls
  • Plumbing fixtures and surrounding areas
  • Foundation

Technology has undoubtedly improved the industry, helping engineers work safer and smarter. To continue to advance the profession, it is crucial for engineering professionals to keep pace with the latest developments.