Cranes are due for an upgrade. Major accidents, which have grabbed international headlines, are placing more pressure on companies to pursue projects to develop smarter and safer cranes.
After all, accidents don't only threaten project progress at construction and oil sites—they can be deadly. When a tower crane toppled on a Google campus project in Seattle, Washington, USA earlier this year, four people were killed. Similar incidents have happened recently in London, England; Dallas, Texas, USA; and Yavneh, Israel.
Pulling cranes off project sites isn't an option. The global crane market is expected to hit US$28 billion by 2025, with annual growth of 6 percent over the next five years, according to market research firm Global Market Insights. Instead, crane companies are looking to build safer cranes through new technology. “Digitally supported solutions are becoming an increasingly vital aspect of site safety and efficiency, and are expected to completely transform the sector,” Jean-Charles Delplace, CEO of French crane anti-collision company SMIE, told International Cranes and Specialized Transport.
Chevron and Accenture partnered on a project to develop a credit-card-sized wearable sensor that can detect where workers and cranes are at all times. The sensor vibrates when workers get too close to active machinery. Verton Australia is now testing a remote-load management system for cranes, which the company says would cut down on one of the most common types of crane-related fatalities. The system eliminates the need for workers to come into physical contact with or even be near suspended loads. In addition to added safety, the company says it will also drastically increase productivity.
SMIE, meanwhile, recently completed a series of pilot tests after a project team modified its existing anti-collision system to allow for crane automation on a simulator. The upgraded system can be managed remotely from any connected location, eliminating the need—as well as time and risk—of climbing multiple cranes on the project site, says Nick Palfrey, director, SMIE, Plymouth, England.
While the team had been toying with the idea for years, when it came time to actually launch, the project was both swift and smoothly executed, says Mr. Palfrey. “Because of the way our anti-collision systems are designed, we realized it wasn't going to be difficult. A series of minor changes to the software allowed us to utilize existing functionality—instead of stopping the crane, we were moving it.”
Of course, crane automation does bring its own risks, including the possibility of a lag between crane activity and what is happening on the operator's screen. To mitigate that risk, the team added a safety feature that puts the crane into safety mode if data transfer speeds dip below 100 milliseconds.
When the prototype was tested on a simulator with multiple operators and companies, the team found that autonomous lifts do take more time than when an operator is controlling the crane on-site. That makes the new system best suited to repetitive and blind lifts, which require less programming, than to every lift on a project site, says Mr. Palfrey. “But it still solves a problem they have.” —C.J. Waity
PHOTO BY BEN BIRCHALL/PA IMAGES VIA GETTY IMAGES
The world's largest crane, dubbed “Big Carl,” began work at the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station near London, England in September. The 250-meter (820-foot) crane, which is able to lift 5,000 tons at once, is so big that it had to be shipped to the site in 280 separate truckloads. In order for the project team to be able to use Big Carl across the site, it laid more than 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) of rail that the crane can traverse.