Industry 4.0 is revolutionizing the way companies integrate new technologies, including the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing and analytics, and AI, into their business operations. Amid this technological revolution is the concept of the digital twin, or digital copies of a real-world place or object, often used to optimize workflows and business performance.
But the process of capturing real-world data to create digital replicas can be tedious and time-consuming. To help businesses tackle this challenge, Singapore-based startup Airsquire has created an AirGo 360° Virtual Site Platform that uses a 360° camera to virtualize sites.
Harnessing image analytics to generate accurate 3D scans of buildings, the AI mobile app creates a “time capsule” that allows its clients to traverse to any moment of a project to monitor and manage its progress.
Targeting architects, project managers, and site engineers in the construction industry, AirGo allows businesses to visualize progress on-site remotely with a 360° view through virtual walks as opposed to manual or traditional site inspections.
Airsquire began its operations in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, having started with small pilot projects in 2020 before officially launching in 2021. “We took a gutsy bet that COVID-19 would be the perfect storm for digital transformation in construction,” said Kyle Tan, CEO and co-founder of Airsquire.
KrASIA chatted with Tan to find out more about how the company is riding the wave of digitalization in the construction industry.
This interview has been consolidated and edited for brevity and clarity.
KrASIA (Kr): How did the idea of setting up Airsquire come about?
Kyle Tan (KT): I was scouting for houses to rent and realized it was a very inefficient process. That was when I thought about building a virtual tour software, specifically a 360° space for house viewing.
At that time, I was working with B2B customers in industrial real estate, where I learned more about technologies that can capture fast-changing spaces; for example, factories, construction sites, and logistics floors. The existing market solutions available then were either too expensive or took up too much time.
That was how we thought about using this technology to convert a space in a way that is similar to Google Street View (GSV) and putting it to use in industries where the pain points are highest. Our solution allows a client to simply mount a camera and walk around the site to document the space for between five and ten minutes before converting the data into a 3D form.
What we set out to do is to help our customers document specific conditions of their space and build a “history” of the space in the form of a time capsule.
In traditional sectors such as the construction industry, we often witness disputes over issues caused by a lack of data documentation. The time capsule we’ve created allows clients to store first-hand raw information, which they can use later as evidence in the event of project disputes or claims.
Kr: How does your 360° virtual site incorporate the use of AI?
KT: Our solution is a proprietary technology developed by the co-founders of this company, which leverages our knowledge of computer vision, AI, as well as industry technological applications.
We virtualize a physical site using 360° cameras. Previously, when clients photographed a location, they had to engage in a tedious manual process when capturing and stitching together photos to recreate a realistic 3D form of the space. Their site engineers had to take thousands of photos and cobble them together, which could take up to two to three weeks.
By using a 360° camera mounted on a worker’s hard hat, workers just need to walk around the site and our AI tech will detect their position and stitch the whole space together for a 3D-based reconstruction.
Unlike GSV, our AI technology does not require GPS signals to mark out where the photos were taken. Instead, it can easily detect where these photos were taken simply by recognizing similar objects in the photos.
Kr: What major markets do you target?
KT: Today, we operate mostly in Asia and Europe. One of our biggest markets is Singapore, which currently constitutes more than 50% of our total sales. We are also moving into Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand.
In Europe, we’re active in the Netherlands and the UK, as well as some parts of Scandinavia.
Eventually, we will push into China. We’re currently in talks with some interested investors and companies in China to adopt our technology or invest in our company.
Kr: Over the past few years, there have been major disruptions caused by COVID-19, which led to surging material and labor costs, and a severe manpower crunch. To what extent has the pandemic affected your business?
KT: To the contrary, the pandemic has helped catalyze the adoption of our business technology. Many of our clients, who used to do on-site inspections, had to take a leap of faith and rely on remote work technologies to make business decisions. COVID-19 put a hard stop to site visits for many construction companies, and these firms had no choice but to use virtual sites to make decisions. While they initially found this challenging, it opened their minds to the idea of engaging virtual technologies.
This development has certainly changed the mindsets of executives in the construction sector as well as other industries. These decision-makers now realize that this mode of work is actually helping their businesses become more efficient.
In all, the pandemic has changed the way the construction industry approached technology in Singapore and was a major catalyst in the digital transformation of the construction industry.
Kr: How does your business model tie in with the development of smart cities in Asia as their governments launch ambitious initiatives to make their cities more intelligent?
KT: The concept of digital space can also be found in the framework of smart cities. On a macro level, this refers to a 3D digital representation of the city and using it to carry out activities such as simulations and urban planning.
Similarly, some companies are moving away from traditional ways of running their business operations to Industry 4.0, which is useful for the generation of digital replicas of their physical assets and processes.
A good example of this is the construction industry. By creating an immersive virtual tour of spaces that can be used for purposes such as operations management and staff training, what we’re doing is disrupting the traditional way of managing spaces as part of Industry 4.0 and the development of smart cities.
Kr: A key component in the development of smart cities is sustainability. How does that align with your business operations?
KT: The digital twin concept, as part of smart city development, plays a significant role in sustainability. Today, one of the biggest carbon emissions comes from business travel. In sectors such as construction and industrial real estate development, operations are typically managed on-site and employees need to be at physical locations to manage day-to-day activities.
But with the virtualization of space, some of these operations are no longer necessary. About 30–40% of business trips can be done away with when the physical assets of companies are virtualized. Instead, virtual space can be communicated over Zoom to help businesses manage their operations, including training. This not only cuts down on business travel but also reduces carbon emissions.
Kr: Are there any emerging trends that you’ve observed?
KT: One interesting trend that we’re observing in Asia is that more of our clients are now asking for us to have a deep understanding of their ecosystems. We’re referring to sectors such as construction and logistics.
Customers don’t solely want to acquire your product. Instead, they prefer to work and partner with various companies to build an ecosystem around them. For example, instead of buying a one-off product from us, clients in Asia want us to partner with multiple solution providers they are working with so the systems they have built and are using can “talk” with each other. It seems there is this shift from relationship building in Asia to becoming ecosystem partners.
As a solution provider, we’re moving away from a purely selling product perspective to more of a partnership-focused approach in working with our clients’ partners.
At the same time, this development brings with it a new challenge. Now we have to commit more resources and time to help build this ecosystem. The implication is that more stakeholders would need to actively partake in shaping this business transformation as an entire ecosystem for it to be successful and sustainable.
Kr: What is your outlook for the construction industry in Asia?
KT: I’m optimistic. The global construction industry is driven by Asia. These countries are growing rapidly, and their governments are making concerted efforts in terms of urban planning and building infrastructure. Around the region, we’re looking at hypergrowth in the construction industry, mostly spurred by top-down driving and commercial opportunities in these rapidly developing countries to build more factories to rent and condominiums to sell.
It’s easy to see why. In Asia, there are plenty of greenfield projects, which means that there are fewer constraints imposed by prior work or systems. This implies that construction can easily start from scratch and come with new budgets to invest in digitalization or sustainability. Hence, developers are in a better position to mobilize resources and finances on greenfield projects.
This is unlike in Europe where projects are mostly brownfield, with more constraints such as those relating to permits, legacy software, etc.
Kr: What are your future plans?
KT: We’re working to scale our business operations. We’re also moving into Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam and are looking at China and India, even as far as the Middle East.
Besides expanding geographically, we’re also making a push into the building maintenance industry. Most buildings undergo an average of 60 to 70 years of building maintenance. One of the biggest challenges in this segment is a lack of data and documentation on building work in prior years.
We’re also exploring more industry “virtual twin” use cases, such as virtual training and virtual renovation management. For example, in building services, we’re exploring pilot projects that involve virtual training of cleaners, in which our virtual site allows cleaners to be trained without having to visit the physical site.
We are also working on several pilot projects for which interior design firms can manage renovation work for overseas projects by remotely checking on work progress at the site.