Bringing contractors and safety technology start-ups together

Photo of people discussing safety technology
Image: Rawpixelimages |

Technology companies need to gain a better understanding of industry needs, but industry should not expect technology to solve all its problems, says Sebastian Corby, principal consultant at Safetytech Accelerator.

In a world where an array of new safety technology has exploded in the past decade, it can be overwhelming for construction businesses to know where to invest their money to improve performance. Enter Sebastian Corby, principal consultant at Safetytech Accelerator.

Corby is one of a team of 12 working at the company, established by Lloyd’s Register, which felt there was a gap in the market to help organisations invest in technology with a focus on both safety and risk. “We work as an independent, commercial entity. We act as an advisory service and look to rapidly source, evaluate and deploy technology from the global marketplace into companies, having gained a detailed understanding of the environment, the limitations, and the requirements that a client might have,” he explains.

“We’ll evaluate different technology companies to meet those requirements. And then we test them, deploy them, and help the organisation work out whether it’s really been worthwhile for them.”

Corby joined Safetytech Accelerator in January 2023 from Amey’s strategic consulting business, where he had focused on innovation with clients that included National Highways and Network Rail, advising them on their investment in emerging technologies. He had joined Amey’s graduate scheme after graduating in clinical psychology.

Sebastien Corby of teh Safetytech Accelerator

“The industry and tech companies are forming groups, getting together and planning further activities – such as looking at standardising best practice for zonal working.”

Sebastian Corby

Targetting risks

Safetytech Accelerator works across a number of business sectors where risks of loss of life or commercial losses tend to be the highest, including mining, shipping and more recently, construction.

Safetytech Accelerator is working with the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) to investigate the potential of AI technologies to reduce health and safety risks in construction. In a pioneering programme of work, known as the Industrial Safetytech Regulatory Sandbox, the Safetytech Accelerator and HSE have selected six tech start-ups and key players from the construction industry to explore the potential of the technologies and the barriers to take-up.

The work is funded by the government-backed Regulators’ Pioneer Fund and considers how regulation affects the development and adoption of life-saving technologies, and how assessment and compliance activities can be undertaken more effectively. The eight-month programme of work began in April 2023.

The safety six

The six start-up tech companies – FYLD, HAL Robotics, Oculo, Eave, Plinx and Machine Eye – have joined seven major construction and infrastructure companies, which include Balfour Beatty, BAM Nuttall, Costain, Heathrow Airport and Laing O’Rourke, in exploring the technology and reporting on their experiences.

Corby, who describes it as a unique programme, says the HSE wanted to understand safety technology better as a regulator and understand where any potential gaps are looming with new technologies. And he adds: “The technology companies themselves are desperate to remove barriers to their own entry into the market. So we created a programme that benefitted both the regulator and the tech companies.

“So for example, FYLD, which is an AI company,  wanted to explore the barriers to adoption for AI, both on the general level, but also in terms of its own solution. And as a result, HSE is also gaining an understanding of what role it needs to play in regulating AI.”

The programme is nearing the end. “We’re currently collating all the results and generating follow-on actions and outcomes. From the beginning, the focus has been around creating tangible impact, not filing something away in a cabinet, so we’re hoping another stage of work comes out of it,” Corby says.

BIMplus: Can you say more about the results?

Sebastian Corby: We have had a lot of very good feedback from the tech companies. They have been able to talk to industry in a way that they have not been able to before and they are changing their products to bring them in line with industry needs.

And we have produced recommendations and insights that are feeding directly into the HSE’s internal strategies around AI.

Also, the industry and tech companies are forming groups, getting together and planning further activities – such as looking at standardising best practice for zonal working. There is another group looking at how to systemise the regulation of flexible robotic systems – the need to do this was a strong message to emerge from the research.  

The programme has generated interest from other government departments and other governments around the world. It’s being looked at as a possible way of solving problems, bringing a regulator, tech companies and industry together in this unique way.

“We are surrounded by advanced technologies in day-to-day recreational use, but for an industry like construction, the pace of change is so much slower.”

Sebastian Corby

What other projects are you working on?

One of the areas that we have had a good amount of success in is bringing lots of different industry partners together into collaborative innovation initiatives. So we are doing that in maritime where we have 15 maritime organisations pooling their resources into a single innovation initiative on methane abatement.

Bringing together lots of different companies that all have the same problem means they get more value if everyone is pulling towards the same goal. Each person gets 10 times back what they put in.

We are also working on a maritime project concerned with cargo fire and loss. Seven cargo shipping companies are pooling their resources on a project in which we are evaluating and trialling different ways in which container ships can be protected against fire.

In terms of construction, we work with the National Safety Council (the US equivalent to the HSE), where we are running a programme looking at technology to help prevent musculoskeletal disorders.

Do you think construction in the UK has been slow to respond to using safety technology?

The short answer is yes. But it is more complicated. The technology that we are talking about, whether it’s cloud-based analytics, sensors, Internet of Things or drones, is more immature than people realise. It may have become prominent 15 or so years ago, but it has taken time to work out the kinks and start to build a good understanding of where it can have impact within real operational environments.

We are surrounded by advanced technologies in day-to-day recreational use, but for an industry like construction, the pace of change is so much slower. We tend to underestimate how difficult it is to go from someone having a great idea for a solution, and that idea being implemented into an industry at scale. Emerging technology requires a lot of thought and a lot of iterative testing and development. And, of course, the construction industry makes very small margins, so is naturally very risk averse and does not want to invest in technology that might fail.

But it’s not just on the construction companies to make it work – a lot of technology companies have not made the case well enough, especially small technology companies, to invest in their solutions. You need a lot more than a good idea to establish a piece of technology in the construction market.

Technology companies need to get much better at demonstrating the tangible real-world benefits and improvements of their products and developing those products in tight alignment with the needs of the industry. At the same time, construction companies need to get better at dealing with the uncertainty that is inevitable with emerging technology.

“It’s about using technologies to design out risks. That is one of the trends we are seeing: people being less interested in technology that is just on the site, at the end of the process.”

Sebastian Corby

What new trends in safety technology do you see emerging?

Cloud-based analytics is becoming more mainstream, and we are beginning to see a maturation of how people view the capability – as much more of an enhancement and contextualisation of data to aid decision-making, rather than black box decision support tools.

We are also starting to see drones become much more popular and that’s something I am hopeful will make a positive impact as the tech has been around for a while. In terms of construction, it’s about using technologies to design out risks. That is one of the trends we are seeing: people being less interested in technology that is just on the site, at the end of the process. They want solutions that can make them more intelligent as an organisation and remove the potential for harm in the first place, such as offsite manufacturing and redesigned spaces where the risk is not even present.

We’ve had a tidal wave of new technologies, but much of it was not ready or necessary. So the one thing that really excites me is less, but better tech.

People are starting to appreciate that technology cannot be autonomous and tell people what they should be doing, which has been an expectation and perhaps a blocker for onboarding technology in the past. People are now realising it is about technology offering up information and insights that enables a human being to make a much better decision. That realisation should help ease resistance to take-up.

Can you give an example?

Take the example of using wearable technology to improve safety. Rather than thinking of these devices purely for alerting site operatives that they are too close to an object (or have entered a forbidden area), what companies are doing is collecting a wealth of contextual risk data about the movements, habits and behaviours of those on site. They can then use this to drive more intelligent decisions about everything, from the way they design sites, to the way they design and deliver programmes.

So the technology is not telling you exactly how you need to design your construction site, but is giving companies a rich body of information and insight that individuals can think about and use. This example can be extrapolated across a lot of AI and IoT, where the real-use case is around building a deep proactive understanding of risk within the industry, that will enable better decisions to be made.

Don’t miss out on BIM and digital construction news: sign up to receive the BIMplus newsletter.

Story for BIM+? Get in touch via email: [email protected]

Latest articles in Analysis