Get drawings, cut paperwork or surf the net, all from a muddy ditch anywhere. As computers get faster, smaller and cheaper, some companies are holding the future in their hands. Thomas Lane explores the revolution in mobile computing
Construction has seen the future, and it networks. A new generation of powerful palmtop organisers can now be be linked with the internet and slipped into pockets. On site, they are shaping a brave new technological world. Workers can surf the net for up-to-date information, send pictures back to base and receive instructions from head office in real time.

Personal Digital Assistants, or PDAs, are following the example of the mobile phone in becoming on-site necessities. A new generation of smaller, cheaper PDAs with colour screens and miniature versions of familiar software like Microsoft Word and Excel are appearing in more and more toolboxes. Meanwhile, laptop computers are shrinking by the day.

And now these devices can be linked to mobile phones using Bluetooth, a new wire-free standard that enables the user's PDA and mobile to connect and "talk" to each other. Data can then be transmitted via high-speed links set up between the mobile phone and head office.

Use of this technology is being pioneered in the facilities management sector, partly because of FM's inherent complexity. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive, for example, has a nightmarish brief. It is the largest state-owned housing provider in Europe, with 120,000 tenants, and spends £20m a year on repairs, using 200 contractors. It is currently piloting a scheme to link the contractor and housing executive office electronically, which should enable it to provide a better service to both tenants and contractors.

In this scheme, the contractor carries a PDA using the Pocket PC operating system. Details about a maintenance job are beamed from the NIHE office to the PDA on site, via a mobile phone using a Bluetooth connection. If the contractor finds the work is more extensive than the original specification, it sends details, or even digital pictures, of the problem back to the office and gets immediate authorisation without hassle. Details of any changes are electronically documented in an instant, saving on yet more paperwork. Each type of repair has a pre-negotiated price, so the contractor can beam its invoice to the main NIHE computer systems from site, again saving on paperwork and also speeding up payment.

Roy Harper, information systems service manager for the NIHE, explains the benefits: "It cuts down on the paperwork and the time for payment, and provides a better service to the tenants," he says. He says that tenants have a high expectation of a quick turnaround, but one problem is that contractors may be reluctant to leave a high-value job for a smaller one. However, this electronic system will allow jobs to be "bundled" together in one geographical area, rather than contractors being drip-fed jobs in multiple locations. "Hopefully this will improve the performance level," he says.

Harper describes the costs of implementing the technology as "very small beer" when compared to the potential benefits. If the pilots are successful – the results are due in April – the new system will be rolled out over the following year.

Meanwhile, the UK's largest building management contractor, Haden Building Management, is carrying out its own multimillion-pound pilot scheme using even more sophisticated technology, to establish its benefits and practicality on site. Haden will examine how easy it is to carry hardware around on site, how long the battery lasts for, and the continuity of the radio signal connecting the computer to the network.

Haden's long-term strategic vision involves equipping service engineers with mini-laptops that have built-in internet access. These can be used to receive daily work schedules in the same way as the NIHE's system. The difference is that full internet connectivity lets workers download information from online construction services such as, as well as any other source on the web. CD-ROMs with full technical details provide a portable reference resource.

Managing director Mike Fallows believes that information captured from the on-site technology has wide-ranging benefits. For example, data gathered over the life-cycle of a building can be studied and applied to the design and construction of a PFI project, enabling the contractor to create a more efficiently maintained building that is cheaper to run.

Fallows sees this technological strategy as central to the future success of the company. He describes the process as "re-engineering the way we run our business to make better use of the new IT, making us more efficient and effective as a business".

Housing association London and Quadrant is more cautious about investing in this brave new world. It is looking at the technology, but maintenance policy adviser Kevin Taplin is yet to be fully convinced the benefits are worth the investment. He is concerned about the human side, pointing out that the technology will bring a new culture of making instant on-site decisions about complex problems, rather than discussing them back at the office. "People like to bounce ideas off each other rather than making a decision immediately," he says. "If we save 2% on efficiency but our staff aren't happy, it might not be worth it."

Despite this, other companies are already using the technology. Multidisciplinary consultant Citex has been using PDA technology for four years for building condition surveys and disability and fire audits. These are carried out for large national chains, and up to 1400 properties can be surveyed for one client. Citex has developed its own software, and tweaks it for each job to suit the needs of the individual client.

Paul King, Citex's director of building surveying, says that compared with paper systems, the PDA ensures that the information gathered is very detailed and consistent, even though over 30 different surveyors can be involved on one project. The data is easily downloaded on to a main computer system and analysed.

PDA software aimed at the construction sector is becoming increasingly available off the shelf.

In May, BRE will launch a PDA-based safety audit tool called SABRE, which should be faster to complete than a paper-based audit, and the information will be more accessible and can be transferred to head office instantly. The system is being trialled by contractors Carrillion and May Gurney, and consultant Oscar Faber. CALIBRE, BRE's tool for identifying and reducing waste on site, is also used on a PDA, and CAD packages are available too.

Software developer AutoDesk supplies Onsite View, a tool that allows the user to view and pan and zoom across AutoCAD drawings downloaded to a PDA. The surveying department of contractor YDL Construction uses it for checking work carried out by subcontractors, and to check that last-minute design changes match drawing revisions.

Tony McKernon, principal consultant on the SABRE project at BRE, thinks more people are now recognising the potential advantages of the technology. "In the States they use these things for everything," he says. "We are a bit slow off the blocks here." He believes the Pocket PC system will push uptake forward as it is a proper work tool, compared with first generation PDAs, which he describes as "glorified Filofaxes".

Change will continue as the technology develops. PDAs combined with mobile phones are already available, and as PDAs get more powerful and laptops shrink, the line between them will become more and more blurred. Prices will come down and such equipment will be within the reach of smaller firms.

It was only a few years ago that basic mobile phones cost several hundred pounds, were the size of bricks and only used by the wealthy. These days, not only does every builder have one, but their children do as well. It's only a matter of time before handheld computers follow in the mobile's footsteps.