Geospatial Technology Innovation is Transformative (part 2)

Editor’s Note: Part 1 of this article appeared in the Summer issue of the Damage Prevention Professional and can be accessed at

In the first part of this series which ran in the Summer Issue, the latest advances in spatial technologies with important implications for industries such as construction and utilities were discussed. In this second part, recent applications of these technologies in these industries are presented.

Mixed reality is beginning to be used in real-world construction projects. At a recent conference,
three companies in the construction sector, Gensler (a collaborative design firm), McCarthy (a commercial construction firm), and Martin Brothers Construction (a heavy civil construction
firm), demonstrated how they were using mixed reality on their projects. A bathroom pod was designed using a standard design authoring application such as Revit or Sketchup, then projected onto the reality of a shop floor where it was constructed using the full-scale virtual reality projection of the design into the shop. Two or more designers and stakeholders can share a mixed reality space where they work collaboratively on a design. In a mixed reality  environment, stakeholders are able to move furniture around on the floor and furnishings on
the wall.  Many of these mixed reality visualizations can be used on handhelds. Stakeholders
are able to explore, review and modify projects independently or simultaneously anywhere on
the globe from their computer or mobile device. Workers in the field or during operations and
maintenance can use these applications to inspect and query facilities to access inspection and
maintenance reports for equipment they point at in a mixed reality environment.

A technology advancement which is expected to rapidly become pervasive in the construction
industry is a bidirectional communication link between a mixed reality environment and an authoring design tool such as Revit or Sketchup. This makes it possible to change a design in a mixed reality environment, jump into R evit or Sketchup to complete the design change, and then jump right back into the mixed reality environment to see the final change.

About four million excavations are carried out on the UK road network each year to install or repair buried utility pipes and cables. Not knowing the location of buried assets causes practical problems that increase costs and delay projects; but more importantly, it increases the risk of injury for utility owners, contractors and road users. The problems associated with inaccurate location of buried pipes and cables are serious and are rapidly worsening due to the increasing density of underground infrastructure in major urban areas. In the U.S., it is estimated that an underground utility is hit every minute. Underground utility conflicts and relocations are the number one cause of project delays during road construction.

Used in conjunction with ground penetrating radar, magnetometers and other equipment, LiDAR can generate aboveground and underground 3D images of project sites. Leica  Geosystems has recently offered an aboveground LiDAR scanner combined with a ground penetrating radar array (Pegasus Stream) that can scan above and below ground at up to 15 km per hour. This is particularly important in congested urban or environmentally sensitive sites where disturbance needs to be minimized. An important advantage of the combined system is that it is capable of +/- 10 cm precision in locating underground infrastructure in 3D.

Since the world has become aware of the human impact on the environment, it has become
increasingly difficult to design buildings without reference to its geographic context. Many cities
have environmental, zoning and other types of bylaws that require designers to take into account
neighboring buildings, infrastructure and vegetation. States and national governments are developing building codes that require designers to assess the energy, water, emissions, and other environmental impacts of a new building. Several countries such as the United States, European Union, and Japan have already mandated zero energy buildings in the near future. This means that when designing and constructing a building, the traditional approach of design in isolation is no longer adequate for sustainable design. For example, in the United Kingdom right-to-light is a legal requirement, so that when designing a new building in London, the designer has to be able to model the shadowing of neighboring buildings. Energy performance modeling for buildings involve natural lighting, solar irradiation, and other analyses which require information about neighboring structures and vegetation.

Integrated geospatial+BIM is even more critical during the operations and maintenance phase of a building. Utilities, transportation, emergency planning, first responder access, energy performance, and evacuation management all require information about internal and external infrastructure. A common geospatial coordinate system enables a comprehensive operational
view of all infrastructure, including internal and external structures. When combined with reality modeling and geolocation, 5D BIM technology offers a way of providing the full-lifecycle BIM modeling that the British government expects will contribute to reduce public  infrastructure costs over the lifetime of a facility by 40% or more.

An example of a full-lifecycle BIM project, Crossrail, with a budget of £14.8 billion, is the biggest engineering project in Europe. It involves 42 km of tunnels beneath one of the most densely populated parts of Europe. It has wider tunnels and its 40 stations have longer station platforms than the Tube. Crossrail trains are expected to start running next year and the full network
should be open by 2019. But the most interesting aspect of the Crossrail project is the 3D digital model, comprised of many BIM models, with associated asset data that has not only been used during design and construction, but is intended to be used for operations and maintenance. Crossrail appears to be the first major project that may be able to provide support for the conjecture that the biggest benefits of BIM are for operations and maintenance. The Crossrail model is comprised of spatial and non-spatial data with links between the two. The spatial data is made up of more than 250,000 3D BIM models as well as as-builts, together comprising a few terabytes. As construction of each facility is completed, as-builts are collected by point-cloud survey using laser scanners. Taken together, this represents one of the world’s largest BIM models. A critical aspect of the spatial database is that all assets are geo-located so that workers can query a particular location of London on a map and then navigate to the Crossrail assets there. The model is intended to become a crucial tool for monitoring, operating and maintaining Crossrail’s systems once the railway is running. The digital infrastructure provides a mixed-reality interface which allows workers to hold an iPad up to a wall or floor and see a view of the infrastructure (electricity, water, and communications) under the floor or behind the wall.

In the words of the Chief of Surveys at the Oregon Department of Transportation, geospatial
technology is contributing to “standing the traditional highway construction process on its head.” Replacing paper as-builts with a project BIM model and associated data and during-project (for example, scans of underground utilities before they are covered) and post-project
3D reality capture, provides reliable asset information for the maintenance and operations
phase of the highway or bridge. This data can be provided to the relevant Department of
Transportation or any other organization which maintains a statewide geospatially-enabled
database of highway asset information. When a new project is initiated in the same area, 80-
90% of the necessary information is already available in the DOT database, obviating the need
for a complete resurvey. This fundamentally changes the highway construction process by
replacing paper as-builts with reliable scans and BIM models that can be reused in subsequent
rehab and other projects in the same area.

Utilities in the developed world are primarily in the infrastructure maintenance business.  GIS has been widely used by utilities for years for automated mapping/facilities management, back office records management, asset management, transmission line siting and, more recently,
for design and construction, energy conservation, vegetation management, mobile workforce
management (MWFM) and outage management (OMS). N ow, utilities are integrating GIS with automated meter infrastructure (AMI) and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems. Intelligent design has crossed over from the office to the field in utilities, also enabled by the capabilities of GIS. Geospatial-related analytics (spatial analytics) is seen as one of the key aspects of success for electric utility operations in the smart grid era. Looking for patterns and correlations between different land, weather, terrain, assets, and other types of geo-data will be increasingly important for utilities. Power-related analytics with geospatial components include network fault tracing, load flow analysis, Volt/VAR analysis, real-time disaster situational awareness, condition-based maintenance, and vegetation management.

Every utility which has transmission lines spends large sums on vegetation management overflights, typically using helicopters, to identify trees encroaching on transmissions lines. If, instead, this could be done with much less expensive UAV flights, the savings would be huge. In February of 2016, Xcel Energy completed the first beyond visual line-of-sight mission (BVLOS) with UAV flights over 20 miles of transmission lines. The cost savings and implications for grid reliability are significant. The FAA has already begun working on draft regulation to issue rules for BVLOS operations.

The development and health of the world’s economy is directly dependent on infrastructure, energy, transportation, water, and industrial, commercial, and residential buildings. Building and maintaining sustainable information is estimated to require $95 trillion in investment through 2030. An increasing proportion of this investment is coming from private sources such
as pension funds, insurance companies, and sovereign wealth funds. The infrastructure construction sector has long been dogged by low and, in some regions, decreasing productivity, which has created disincentives for investing in this sector. Now, however, there are signs that certain sectors of the world economy are on the cusp of a disruptive transformation driven by
increasingly private investment in infrastructure and enabled by advances in information technology. Spatial information technologies, in particular, will be a key enabler of this transformation.

Geoff Zeiss has more than 20 years of experience in the geospatial software industry and 15 years of experience developing enterprise geospatial solutions for the utilities,  communications, and public works industries. He can be reached at

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