Innovations for megacities and where to find them

Innovations for megacities and where to find them

Digital twins, drones, but also solutions to minimize the impact of the construction of large infrastructures enter the construction site

Under-crossing of the Isarco river in the Brenner tunnel construction site (photo: Webuild) Construction is one of the more traditional sectors. Whether it's building skyscrapers or galleries, the now common concept of disruption in digital is less familiar. It does not help that, as pointed out by several entrepreneurs, obtaining funding to develop this type of technology is not easy: scalability, which with the web allows astronomical gains within a few years, is difficult to achieve. "The construction sector is a very late sector" admits Michele Longo, chief bidding & engineering officer of WeBuild, the new name of Salini Impregilo, the Italian construction giant.

"If we look at the periodic reports of the consulting companies , it emerges that it is the one furthest back in the process along with agriculture ”he continues:“ This is bad, of course. But it is also good news, because it means that there is ample room for improvement ".

The construction site at the Hoover dam (Webuild)

Freezing the river before building

The Italian group , one of the world leaders in construction with participation in construction sites - to give an idea - of the importance of the Panama Canal, has launched a series of innovative projects to keep up. Especially in the key sector: the water sector. "We work on roads, railways and subways, but the branch in which we have something more, moreover recognized worldwide, is certainly the one related to water".

In Australia, in the context of Snowy Hydro Limited's hydroelectric power plant network expansion project, WeBuild uses a special Tbm (Tunnel boring machine, the so-called "mole") capable of digging on a range of slopes challenging variables and on very steep angles, with a descent of up to 9% and an ascent of up to 47%.

In Nevada the Italian giant is digging a 4.6 km hydraulic tunnel thanks to another Tbm unique in the world, designed to withstand pressure conditions "never experienced in the history of tunneling", says the company: "Advancement occurs up to a maximum of 15 bar, double the previous world record". The project will serve to collect and transport the waters of Lake Mead, one of the largest artificial lakes in the United States, fed by the Hoover Dam that blocks the course of the Colorado River. The basin supplies the nearby city of Las Vegas.

In Trentino, on the other hand, as part of the construction of the Brenner railway tunnel (destined to become the longest underground railway tunnel in the world), for the under-crossing of the river Isarco artificial ground freezing is used. “In this case, it is the freezing of groundwater present in the subsoil with liquid nitrogen at 300 degrees below zero, a technique that allows you to dig the tunnel as if you were facing a rock”, explains Longo. Recently Webuild was awarded the design and construction of the section of a new high-capacity line of approximately 22.5 kilometers in continuation of the Brenner base tunnel, between Fortezza and Ponte Gardena. Value: € 1.07 billion. The tunnel will connect with the existing ring road of the Austrian city of Innsbruck, becoming the longest underground railway link in the world with a total length of 64 kilometers.

The engineer explains that refrigerant fluids (nitrogen and brine) are used which never come into contact with the surrounding water table because they circulate through special closed pipes. “When defrosting, the soil only slightly loses some minimal characteristics. But at that point the tunnel has already been built and calculated with the parameters of the river, which in the meantime has returned to a fluid state ”, explains the technician. A procedure also used in Milan for the construction of the fourth metro line, still in progress. "In the central stations the consolidation, which normally in the Lombard capital takes place through cement injections, is integrated with freezing" reveals Longo.

The "special" mole for Snowy Hydro Limited (Webuild)

Electric trains and sensors

Logistics is, of course, an extremely important issue on construction sites. Ghella, another important Italian actor, with orders all over the world, knows something about it. The Roman company is replacing the diesel trains used to bring materials into the tunnel with electric models, which have the advantage of not emitting fumes and therefore reduce the need for circulation of clean air (which, moreover, represents a cost item). "As in the Hanoi metro", explains Massimo Maffucci, Ghella tunnel division manager: "In this case, the problem is that of battery management, because the construction sites of this type of works clearly never stop".

But there are other important innovations, such as load cells equipped with sensors positioned inside the segments, which allow you to check the wear of the reinforcement iron: the control station receives an automatic signal when the threshold of danger. Sensors also for WeBuild, which with an intelligent biodiversity monitoring project ensures respect for flora and fauna in the areas affected by the works.

Information technology will not overturn the paradigms, but equally plays an important role in modern buildings. Certainly, there is Bim (Building information modeling, an advanced design method). But also assistance and maintenance of machinery have made great strides by exploiting the new possibilities.

"Thirty years ago we also brought workers to open a construction site in New Zealand: now technology helps us - continues Maffucci -. If we have problems on the Tbm, the technicians connect from Germany, where the mechanical cutter is built, and try to solve it. Some suppliers also use special 3D glasses, with which the operator in the office can see the same things as the worker on site. Even the tests, by now, we try to do them remotely ”.

The possibility of the web connection, which allows you to be connected at any moment with the headquarters, has changed the composition of the work teams. "Today almost exclusively local staff are hired, sending only key figures from Italy, such as the tunnel manager and plant manager, for a total of about 5/10 expats per project - says Maffucci -. The tongue? There is always a translator on site, and the foreman naturally speaks English ".

On the combination of digital twins, faithful reproductions made by ideally breaking down the infrastructure piece by piece, 'translating' it into bits, and using the images for monitoring and maintenance activities, and drones, to control bridges and viaducts, by Movyon (technological arm of Autostrade per l'Italia). First test on a stretch of 26 kilometers between South Florence and North Florence, where a sensor infrastructure capable of producing a constant flow of information has been installed.

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