Integrated technologies connect project participants

August 2007 » Feature Articles
In the midst of dramatic change, surveyors can continue to master new technologies and become even more central to infrastructure development.
LaVonne Frazier

Re-engineer work processes by combining positioning, communication, and information management innovations.

The survey engineering and construction industries are poised for dramatic, positive change. To keep up with overwhelming demand for new infrastructure in the face of a limited workforce base, construction firms are tasked with making major productivity gains. In the midst of this change, surveyors can continue to master the new technologies and become even more central to infrastructure development. Exponential productivity gains, reduction of rework, and elimination of waste are possible through a variety of innovative solutions currently on the market.

By mastering new technologies, such as 3-D modeling, surveyors can become even more central to infrastructure development.

 

Rapid innovation is occurring today in three broad categories of survey engineering and construction technology: positioning technology, wireless communication, and information management. These categories not only overlap, they also hold strong potential for tight integration among their components.

The benefits of these technologies are significant. Positioning technology, including readily available real-time correction networks, also known as Virtual Reference Stations (VRS is a term and technology originated with and trademarked by Trimble), and 3-D scanning, can swiftly acquire large amounts of high quality, geolocated spatial data. Wireless communication—for example, cellular telephony—can move that data to all project stakeholders. And information management, such as visualization technologies and network-based project management, keeps the spatial data accurate, accessible, and useful over long project life cycles.

In many cases, these technologies are seeing mainstream adoption or focused development by other industries. The real challenge for the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry is to integrate these advances into a total solution, capturing synergies that can transform project work.

Emerging technologies
Consider positioning technology, which is providing innovative solutions for various scales of locating work, from millimeter to meter as needed. Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS)—the U.S. GPS, Russian GLONASS, and the future European Galileo systems—together with augmentation systems are appreciably enhancing terrestrial positioning. And GNSS is further enhanced by VRS systems around the world that make centimeter-level, real-time kinematic (RTK) positioning available to all.

Non-satellite-based positioning is also advancing quickly. Traditional total station distance and angle measurement is becoming faster, more convenient, and more accurate. In addition, with the increase in functionality and focus on ease-of-use, 3-D scanning will inevitably become essential technology for acquiring spatial data. These improved instruments are not merely faster. Scanners are enabling surveyors and designers to discover new ways to utilize full 3-D images, an improvement to collections of discrete points with x,y,z coordinates. Scanners are also making digitization in the field increasingly practical, closing the gap between office and field.

While positioning technologies are expanding, wireless communication is also exploding. In the last decade, several alternatives for data transfer have emerged—cellular standards such as GPRS, robust point-to-point radio solutions, Bluetooth, and satellite communications. Each of these has a place; none are complete solutions. These solutions range from simple and convenient, such as Bluetooth-enabled survey instruments that eliminate problematic cables, to highly significant, such as cellular standards that make VRS correction delivery easy. Finding ways for these disparate technologies to work together smoothly is a focus of current research.

Powerful processors, low-cost memory, and fast, widespread Internet availability are enabling solutions unthinkable a few years ago. One example is spatial imaging, which is becoming the new standard for design work. Scanning and digital imaging are significantly speeding up model creation, enabling 2-D and 3-D CAD drawings to be replaced by 3-D models. Increasingly, these models are accessible to all project stakeholders early in the project life cycle. Together with the accurate geolocation that VRS enables, models are becoming the basis of 3-D geographic information systems that will require expert management by surveyors and others who understand the complexities of spatial data maintenance.

Integrating technologies
Trimble, which has been working on integration of these technologies for more than a decade, has established partnerships and alliances with industry firms to work on the concepts critical to what it calls the Connected Site approach. In addition, last year Trimble added the capabilities of visualization technology pioneer XYZ Solutions and others to its portfolio. XYZ enables users to take fuller advantage of 3-D models and the rich data sets they are built on, eventually enabling field digitization. Effective, rapid visualization is essential to a model-based workflow.

Trimble has also added the capabilities of Meridian Systems to its portfolio. Meridian brings the business and life cycle management software component to the Connected Site initiative, helping building owners, AEC firms, and government agencies facilitate delivery of information throughout the entire plan, build, and operate life cycle.

These and other technologies will only fully be relevant to the infrastructure industries when they are completely accepted and integrated into daily project workflows. Focusing on integration is the best way to serve the five key participants in infrastructure development: owners, government agencies, surveyors, AEC firms, and contractors. Each of these participates in a continuum of interrelated processes and works with a large number of providers (see Figure 1). And each can benefit from integrated technological advances that connect participants more tightly.

Figure 1: Integrated technologies in Trimble’s Connected Site continuum serve the five key participants in infrastructure development: owners, government agencies, surveyors, AEC firms, and contractors.


 

The construction industry has traditionally made productivity gains by relying on bigger and faster equipment, not by re-engineering basic processes. However, technology advances that tie hardware to hardware, hardware to software, hardware and software to networks, and that tie all of these to project stakeholders, are expected to result in dramatic positive changes in work processes.

Today, the Connected Site concept is a mix of many elements: mature and emerging technologies, accepted and radical processes, management techniques, and rapidly changing information management protocols. One principle unifying this mix is that ideas, people, and tools must be integrated as tightly as possible to achieve maximum gains in productivity, quality, and profitability. Another unifying principle is that spatial data management is emerging as an important discipline that cuts across all phases of infrastructure development. Surveyors, as well as other spatial experts, are in a perfect position to assume a central role as creators and custodians of that data.

Traditional industry boundaries are blurring. The field and office are overlapping as data processing and engineering expertise move closer to projects. Surveyors are adding data management abilities to their skills portfolio. Engineering and spatial data are being tracked with project timeline and accounting data. Survey instruments are combining GPS, optical, and imaging capabilities. And grading machinery is being integrated with GPS to enable 3-D machine control that puts design surfaces, grades, and alignments in the cab, allowing automatic, accurate real-time blade positioning. Put simply, everything is coming together, integrating—connecting.

LaVonne Frazier is director of the Connected Site for Trimble’s Engineering and Construction Division. She can be contacted via e-mail at connected_site@trimble.com.

 


 

Views from the field

By Craig R. Dylan

"Today’s surveyor is a much more technically savvy individual than in years past. On our construction projects, the surveyor is usually second only to the IT folks in terms of technical expertise," said Sam Diaz, P.L.S., chief surveyor for Bechtel Corporation, who agreed that technological advances are changing the face of the construction industry, and changing surveyor’s roles as well.

What helped bring about that change, according to Diaz, are innovations in positioning technology. "Scanners, RTK GPS, reflectorless total stations, and CAD—they’ve all changed what we do," he said. "In addition to our traditional roles, today we are becoming data managers." Diaz also sees change in the way surveyors are performing calculations in the office and on the job site. "One difference is how we’re computing. Calculations are now more CAD-based than COGO-based."

Looking ahead, Diaz believes that model-based design and construction are beginning to come into their own. "At Bechtel, we’ve crossed a threshold of sorts: On some projects, we have begun to digitally extract the stakeout data from the design models," he said. "And while I don’t think the industry is quite there yet, we’re getting to the point where many surveyors will be obtaining their data digitally, from the 3-D model, and we’ll have the technology—survey equipment, machine control, and communication—to work with that."

Burns & McDonnell Engineering Company Project Manager Michael Folta, P.E., concurs. "The model allows you to check any point in space on the project," he said. "That’s very important when you have a multi-staged construction project. … It really speeds up the overall construction process."

Folta also points to the ability of RTK networks that use Virtual Reference Station (VRS) technology to connect all parties on construction projects. On a recent multi-million dollar transportation project in Chicago, for example, implementing the local Trimble VRS network was the first task consultants recommended to the project owners. "We felt it would be worthwhile to validate all design control under one umbrella," Folta said.

And the result? "The network has been invaluable," he said. "It’s reduced the time to maintain control, and we can drop in control very accurately for new contractors when they come on to the project. From a coordination standpoint, it was dollars well spent."

Bruce Flora, P.L.S., owner of Flora Surveying Associates and Data Pro Ltd., has a different perspective from many surveyors because of his 10-year involvement in creating 3-D models for machine control. "Having these tools [scanners and RTK GPS] is one thing," he said. "Having the skills to run them is something else." Flora believes that powerful new positioning technology requires trained, knowledgeable operators.

For example, "scanners are a fabulous tool for densification," he said, "but it’s critical to have a good surveyor to establish key breaklines. Scanners do not automatically create breaklines very well." As for machine control, which he regards as a form of positioning technology, Flora said, "The magic of GPS for gathering data is gone; it’s everywhere. But using GPS to control machinery is the future of the construction industry. Contractors can’t resist the elimination of rework. Yet this depends on building good models. Machine control can build it wrong very accurately. We have powerful tools available now, and surveyors are often the best skilled to run those tools."

Construction technology is advancing, changing the workplace and creating new opportunities, and surveyors are advancing as well to take advantage of those opportunities.

Craig R. Dylan has a land surveying background and specializes in writing for the AEC industry.

 


 

Opening new markets

The Trimble VX Spatial Station is an example of advanced survey technology integration, bringing together optical surveying technology with robotics, video imaging, and 3-D scanning capacity. Controlled wirelessly, video streaming on the handheld controller speeds data collection and operation. By improving field-to-office communication, the Trimble VX also integrates field surveyors with draftsmen and engineers.

The optical surveying capabilities of the Trimble VX match the Trimble S6 total station and are further enhanced by imaging and scanning capabilities, including a high-resolution video display. "The advantage of having the video camera in the instrument is that you can look at the screen of the data collector when standing at the rover and you can see yourself in the view, you can see the surrounding terrain, and you can also see the 3-D layout superimposed on the image," said Chris Bulmer of Canada’s Cansel Survey Equipment, Inc. "That’s pretty powerful."

Murray Roddis, co-owner of Landmark Surveys Ltd., in Canada, likes the Trimble VX’s capacity to remotely measure areas or objects that are inaccessible for various reasons. "The VX can collect more than 18,000 video-rendered 3-D points per hour, producing a visual image for our engineering clients" he said. "The visual image leaves them no room for misinterpretation, either before or after construction. By augmenting our GPS systems with the VX we have a streamlined, high-precision integrated tool that allows us to be more productive and more accurate at the same time."

Along with helping surveyors be more productive and accurate on current projects, the Spatial Station may lead surveyors into new applications. "The challenge with spatial imaging is that the market doesn’t understand its full value yet," said Mike Filipski, L.S., president of Compass Land Surveying Ltd., in Illinois. "I see this technology opening markets outside traditional land surveying work and expanding the surveyor’s role as ’expert measurer.’"

Filipski points out another benefit of the Trimble VX: safety. "I can think of at least a dozen assignments we’ve turned down due to potential injury, and another dozen where I could easily have done a better job and made more money using the Trimble VX," he said. "This is a valuable investment for our future."

 


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