Drones probe floors for flaws
An innovator who started out in aerospace switches to the built environment.
30 December 2019
Buildings often have impressive facades but hidden flaws can bring expensive disasters. Densely developed cities have strong demand for "infrastructure-building doctors" which use artificial intelligence (AI) technologies and robotics to find structural flaws – demand that Harris Sun, Chief Executive Officer and Founder of RaSpect, is eager to meet.
The start-up improves on existing building inspections by using AI and cloud-based data analysis to build up models of the structures. This permits remote detection which saves costs and time. Being among the winners of a competition held as part of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council’s (HKTDC) Start-up Express 2019 development programme, Mr Sun is looking forward to using the HKTDC's business-matching activities to expand overseas.
What are the advantages of using your technology?
At all levels of construction – from the wiring and plumbing of buildings to the infrastructure of bridges and tunnels – inspectors looking out for problems associated with ageing check structures visually, and experts in relevant fields report on their findings. This approach is risky and lengthy; a shortage of talent has also boosted the cost of building inspections. Inspecting an ordinary building may require the erection of scaffolding and this alone could cost more than HK$1 million. But RaSpect’s visualisation technology even lets an inspector sitting in a Hong Kong office instantly assess a structure in Africa. Surveying a one-square-kilometre project in Shunde will take just three or four days.
How do the machine and system carry out an inspection?
First the firm uses a drone to make a laser-light radar (lidar) survey of the structure and collects data from different viewpoints for digital mapping. This can involve several million data points on each floor. A cloud-based system analyses the data and issues a report, highlighting problems. This service is confined to inspections, making it a neutral third-party. Customers can use the video report to decide whether it’s necessary to engage a contractor to conduct maintenance.
Could your system be used worldwide?
Building codes differ across the world but the technology is not limited by location. For example, soft substrate in San Francisco limits building height and can lead to settlement problems. Our Internet of Things 24-hour monitoring system can detect such movement. Detectors in buildings let owners prevent problems before they happen –from as early as the initial construction phase of a building through to post-completion maintenance. This technology can shave more than 50% off inspection time and costs compared with traditional methods.
How did you move into this field?
I was a founding member of Cathay Pacific ’s Innovation Centre which developed similar technologies to streamline aircraft maintenance. This put me in a good position to develop RaSpect’s system. The Airbus A350 aircraft was made of a composite material that was beneficial but greatly increased the number of repairs. My task was to use a 3D video camera to help aircraft inspectors. Following the successful system launch, Swire Properties – which is in the same group as Cathay Pacific – said it would like to see if this technology could be applied to buildings. This question inspired me to look into the possibility in depth and I found there is indeed a huge need for building inspection, so I quit and set up RaSpect.
Have you received much recognition?
In just nine months after its launch, RaSpect was named among “25 Hottest APAC Artificial Intelligence Companies 2018” by Silicon Valley AI Magazine CIO Advisor, and won the Hong Kong first prize at the Innovation Nanshan 2018 “Star of Entrepreneurship” contest. It became one of the winners of the World Summit Award (WSA) 2019. The company was also one of the 10 winning start-ups in a competition held as part of the HKTDC’s Start-up Express 2019. With this award, we have the opportunity to increase our exposure to international markets and investors through participation in trade shows and visits, and to gain business experience by attending workshops and Power Meet-up with successful people.
How will you move into overseas markets?
The HKTDC’s huge international network will help. I’m most interested in business-matching related activities. This is also the main reason we participated in Start-up Express. I have a computer science background. Our team members in the United States and Middle East who also have strong software, scientific research and civil engineering majors. Despite this extensive talent pool, our company lacks business-development experience. I hope the opportunities Start-up Express brings will help us on this front.
I also had the chance to meet Mr Jason Chiu, CEO of leading Hong Kong innovator Cherrypicks. Mr Chiu gave detailed advice and guidance on overcoming the difficulties I encountered as an entrepreneur. He also put me in touch with contacts for further assistance.
I am convinced our technology is internationally applicable and we are determined to enter the world market in the future, with a US$13 million business target in the next five years. We will also actively expand into overseas markets. We took part in an HKTDC business mission to Hungary and Georgia in March, and went to Spain in June, to actively expand the market and find business opportunities. We are also exhibiting the latest products at the Hong Kong Pavilion at the Sands Expo Center in the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in early January and Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February.
In order to achieve the goal of improving the quality of inspection, reducing time and cost, and building a safe and smart city, we also hope to establish a set of building safety indicators applicable to the industry. Based on cutting edge technology, this standardised building safety inspection and evaluation system will hopefully promote safety and its awareness in the entire industry.
- Hong Kong