Business Case Study: Technology approach

January 2008 » Feature Articles
An airport planning firm offers best practices for upgrading civil engineering technology.
Bob Endres
Airport planning firm offers best practices for upgrading civil engineering technology

Firm
Landrum & Brown,

Objective
Increase efficiency and capabilities for airport planning and airspace analysis

Product application
Upgrade from 2-D applications to dynamic 3-D modeling using Autodesk Civil 3D

Conventional wisdom tells us: "If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it," and "just leave well enough alone." At Landrum & Brown, the oldest privately owned consultancy dedicated solely to aviation and airport planning, we have always taken a more proactive approach to our civil engineering processes than what conventional wisdom recommends. We are committed to, and actively pursue, the development of sophisticated, state-of-the-art analytical technology necessary to serve the aviation industry.

This philosophy is what led our company to upgrade from 2-D civil engineering software applications to dynamic 3-D modeling. Our successful experience adopting this new technology has provided us with the following series of best practices that should be universally applicable to all firms, regardless of size:

  • assess the strengths and limitations of current systems;
  • obtain buy-in at all levels of the organization for the new system;
  • invest in sufficient training;
  • reengineer processes to take full advantage of the new technology; and
  • whenever possible, reuse the same data sets for multiple purposes.

Review current systems
To understand our experience upgrading to Autodesk Civil 3D, it’s helpful to understand the type of work we do as a firm and what role technology plays. Landrum & Brown provides environmental and airport planning solutions for aviation decision makers. The projects we work on range in size from very small to very large, as we have a wide range of clients that we service. We have handled projects for large airports such as Los Angeles LAX and Chicago O’hare, as well as smaller—though not necessarily less challenging—municipal airports in Ohio and Rhode Island.

Some of the most interesting work we do is airspace analysis. We analyze the airspace surrounding airports to ensure that multiple air approaches are free from all potential obstructions, such as trees, communication towers, buildings, and freeway overpasses (see Figure 1). Even approaches over water must account for the possibility of tall ships (see Figure 2).

Figure 1: An overhead view of the the Northwest approach to the Baltimore/Washington International Airport. The dots are all violations to the approach surface, such as trees and telephone poles, that must be carefully measured and input into the design.

On the ground, we must grapple with rigorous environmental and community review processes. Everyone from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration can play a role in development of an airspace project.

Although many of the surfaces we model are in the air, the design principles are the same as they are for creating land-based assets. A surface is a surface whether it’s below-grade, above-grade, or at-grade.

Figure 2: An overhead view and cross section of a project on the island of Ofu in the American Samoa. Since the most logical area for an airport was a small, flat area by the coast, Landrum & Brown had to propose ideas to extend the runway to the proper length. This image depicts one such proposal that extended the runway out to the water.

Historically, our analysis of these surfaces was based off of 2-D drawings that were generated by manually plotting thousands of data points. If some of the data points changed, we had to recalculate the entire model manually—a tedious process. Analysis of a single runway design, for example, could take as many as nine days.

When attending a demonstration of Autodesk Civil 3D, we were immediately struck by the software’s potential to accelerate airspace analysis. Civil 3D’s dynamic engineering model, in which a change made in one place instantly updates the entire project, allows us to build corridors and surface models quickly and to change them dynamically. We can upload whatever data points we need to build a surface model, convert them to dynamic objects, and begin our analysis or design. Moreover, dynamic modeling is applicable to more than just analysis. It’s the perfect tool for creating multiple versions of designs, which is a huge value-add for clients.

Lay the groundwork
Having made an honest assessment of the current state of our technological systems—and of how Autodesk Civil 3D could improve upon them—we began laying the groundwork for a successful implementation.

Buy-in—At our firm, there was buy-in at all levels that Autodesk Civil 3D was a technology that could help us succeed. It was particularly helpful to frame the technology purchase in terms of competitive advantage: We are a highly competitive industry, so to differentiate ourselves, we need to be able to offer more than our competitors do. Dynamic 3-D modeling helps us achieve just that.

Training—We contracted our local reseller, Advanced Solutions, to provide a three-day training course on Autodesk Civil 3D. Even though it would have been easy for us to start using the software right immediately, we knew that we could benefit from getting fully oriented ahead of time, so that we were familiar with all of the functionalities available to us.

Think differently—Previously, we relied on a series of homegrown applications and macros working with our 2-D applications to provide analysis. The biggest mental hurdle, once we upgraded to Civil 3D, was learning that what used to take us two or three steps to accomplish could now be accomplished in just one step. In doing so, Civil 3D brought to light inefficiencies within our organization that we didn’t even know we had. We then eliminated them. Again, this is where training can be helpful in unlocking the full power of the technology.

Leverage data
The results we have achieved with Autodesk Civil 3D have fully validated the approach our firm took in adopting it, particularly when conducting airspace analysis. The final approach path of an aircraft is a gigantic, sloping trapezoid shape that encompasses an area about 50,000 feet by 16,000 feet. Analyzing this airspace usually begins with planimetric data supplied by the airport. This serves as the project’s base map, and we flesh it out by gathering point information from multiple sources, including agencies and private data vendors, that takes into account every vertical object that could obstruct the airspace, whether it’s a tree or a utility pole.

The analysis team then loads these data points into Autodesk Civil 3D, and the software converts the data to the correct grid system. From there, we can easily analyze the data within Civil 3D from different views and perspectives to find runway approaches that avoid obstructions and meet all FAA requirements. The time savings have been significant.

Before mapping technology, it took about nine days to do the analysis for a single runway. Now, with 3-D modeling, we’re reducing that to one day or less. For a major airport, we recently created an airspace model from 500,000 data points in just four hours. Before Civil 3D, it would have taken two weeks. For a recent line-of-sight study for an airport, we were able to reduce the amount of time required by 75 percent.

This productivity boost underscores just how powerful data can be when you have the proper tools available to fully leverage it. For example, I’ve been able to reuse a subset of surfaces and alignments on multiple occasions. Anytime you can create a model once and leverage it multiple times, you’re going to save time and complete projects faster. And ultimately, that’s what following best practices such as these will allow a firm of any size to accomplish—working smarter rather than harder.

Bob Endres is corporate manager of Landrum & Brown’s CAD engineering department.


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