By Ron Bisio
There may be no better time than now to invigorate U.S. infrastructure. A strong interest in infrastructure construction is apparent in both industry and government, including President Joe Biden, who has pledged to make it a priority during his administration.
For the geospatial and construction sectors, the most pressing questions are: What role will surveyors and engineers play in a new era of infrastructure construction? And what technologies will define their progress?
State transportation departments, local and federal governments have worked hard to maintain the nation’s Eisenhower-era infrastructure, but the country’s 70-year-old backbone has suffered from chronic underinvestment, resulting in ongoing costs and lost opportunities. This system is increasingly unable to keep up with the demands put on it by a growing population and continually evolving commerce, let alone the disruptions that come with environmental and other disasters.
New report card for U.S. infrastructure
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which publishes the “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure” every four years, released its latest analysis on March 3, with U.S. infrastructure combined receiving a C- average, up from a D+ in 2017. The 2021 grades range from a B in rail to a D- in transit. Five category grades — aviation, drinking water, energy, inland waterways, and ports — went up, while just one category — bridges — went down. While the report card’s key findings show “some incremental progress toward restoring the nation’s infrastructure,” 11 of the 17 categories were stuck in the D range: aviation, dams, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, public parks, roads, schools, stormwater, transit and wastewater.
The potential of a new era of infrastructure
With investment in next-era infrastructure focused on the decades to come, there is an opportunity to create a new system of infrastructure for the nation that will link people and communities through roads and rails both digitally and physically. The plan put forth by President Biden proposes spending $2 trillion on infrastructure improvements encompassing transportation, clean energy, water, and digital policy.
What will that infrastructure look like? It will be more multi-modal to facilitate electric vehicles, autonomy, platooning (commercial and consumer vehicles), high-speed rail and autonomous bus services. The transportation network of the future will not only be multi-modal, it will also be multi-use, becoming a framework to socialize, network and work. It is also conceivable that roadways of the future will be Wi-Fi hotspots to facilitate commerce and improve business efficiencies. In addition, road networks and adjacent right-of-ways could include active electrical charging stations not only for the vehicles utilizing the infrastructure, but also for the surrounding communities.
The ongoing pandemic is moving us toward a new economy that is very digitally based, not only in construction but across all of our lives. It also has presented an opportunity to invest in our economy through rebuilding or expanding roadways, bridges, railways, tunnels, water systems and telecommunications networks, including broadband. We’ve also learned that a more resilient infrastructure is needed to ensure basic services are sustained in the face of potentially simultaneous threats of pandemics and climate-based natural disasters.
Preparing for infrastructure projects
President Biden has advocated for infrastructure investment beyond the levels of the 2009 economic recession and more reminiscent of the New Deal response to the Great Depression. U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is promising an infrastructure overhaul, but any significant change will require major negotiations with federal lawmakers.
The economic impact of COVID-19 may spark government stimulus that could drive infrastructure projects through 2030. Also, lower transit usage volumes, fewer people on the roads and less commercial business activity have made it a good time for local governments and regional transportation departments to tackle infrastructure backlogs. These activities have the added value of creating jobs and boosting the economy.
Surveyors initiate infrastructure construction
As governments leverage stimulus funds for infrastructure investment, the surveying and geospatial sector – as the leading edge of the construction lifecycle – will serve as a bellwether for infrastructure construction activity.
For the geospatial and construction sectors, now is the time to prepare and train employees for new technologies to connect the physical earth and the built environment with the digital world.
In the geospatial industry, surveying companies are asking how they should upskill their employees so when stimulus funds start to flow, they can start bidding. One question they should consider is whether they have the right talent and processes in place. Surveyors are becoming much more multi-talented and need to be comfortable with a variety of technologies (optical, GNSS, mobile mapping, UAS, 3D laser scanning, software), as well as communicating the value of these new processes to their new and potential customers.
New tech drives new processes
Another question surveyors will need to ask is if they have adequate technology to really be competitive. The demand may be above and beyond what it has been in the past, not only because of social distancing at work, but also because technology has moved on to more modern, digital solutions. Mobile mapping, 3D laser scanning, track surveying and measurement, and tunneling as-built and real-time reporting systems are examples of these solutions. They can be leveraged in end markets that are historically underserved and underpenetrated with technology — roads, bridges, rail and tunneling are examples — to deliver productivity, quality, safety, visibility and environmental sustainability.
But the industry will need to act. As it does, surveying and mapping will be at the leading edge of construction and infrastructure activity. While COVID-19 restrictions haven’t had a significant impact on the traditional methods of surveying and mapping, it has put additional attention on innovative alternatives that make it possible to do more. This evolution includes connectivity between field and office via cloud solutions, remote sensing, high-resolution satellite imaging, processing automation, and cloud-based analytics and delivery models.
Surveying and mapping solutions, for example, will be integral in developing a digital twin of a city’s most critical assets, such as the utility network and metro stations. 3D laser scanning systems, whether mobile or terrestrial, enable comprehensive street level data capture, while feature extraction software makes it possible to efficiently process building facades or other complex structures, such as oil storage tanks. To make cities smarter, we need baselines to understand where we are, such as data on water infrastructure leaks, and pavement and railway track conditions. Then we need to continuously monitor the improvements using both automated (24/7) and traditional surveying and mapping solutions.
Infrastructure construction is typically a rebuilding of existing infrastructure, whether roads, railways, bridges or tunnels. When stimulus money is provided to make these improvements, the surveyor is brought in to determine the current state of the physical earth and to create a model to aid design and construction.
We also will have further integration of building information modeling (BIM) and geographic information systems (GIS), as BIM is usually placed in the broader context of the land registry, utility infrastructure and transportation infrastructure. The GIS helps define where the building is located, who owns it, who owes taxes, how water and electricity get to the building and proximity to public transportation stations used by commuting employees and road infrastructure used to take goods in and out of the building.
Five ways technology advances infrastructure construction
Geospatial technologies are transforming the work of professionals across the globe and influencing infrastructure construction in countless ways, including providing benefits in these five areas:
- Safety - With mobile mapping solutions, data on transportation corridors can be collected at a very high rate while crews travel down a highway. With scanning total stations, we can collect rich data quickly at a distance, enabling surveyors to stay out of roadways and other dangerous environments. Currently, there are more than 20 state DOTs (Departments of Transportation) using scanning total stations to improve safety and the collection of rich data.
- Productivity - Productivity tools like Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), laser scanning, 3D modeling software, imaging, machine control, advanced optical instrumentation, and inertial navigation provide engineers, machine operators and surveyors significant productivity advantages compared to conventional techniques. Installing an automated surveying system that can measure and provide 24/7 input reduces the need for repetitive site visits. Tools such as these help to deliver a project on time and on budget, and their adoption is increasingly expected by project owners.
- Quality - Studies on the costs of rework in construction show it can be up to 25% of the contract value and 10 percent of the total project cost, often due to management, planning and communication issues. Also, in Trimble’s experience, automation can improve quality, such as a machine operator being able to work with 75% more accuracy.
- Transparency - This benefit is apparent today with COVID-19. With 3D solutions that capture the physical earth and as-built conditions, project engineers can visualize job sites and manage projects remotely. Data-sharing platforms and automated surveying systems streaming data in real time further enable teams to collaborate better with the most up-to-date project data to avoid potential errors that result from siloed information.
- Sustainability - The efficiency gains born of new geospatial technologies provide improved capabilities for sustainable land and water management and informed decision-making. Software processes and BIM/GIS integration help streamline the complex project communications, leading to a reduction in rework. Reducing rework also means less materials and less waste because we have built the proposed infrastructure right the first time.
To make the most out of the coming era of infrastructure construction, we must enhance our skills, which are necessary to carry out this critically important work. In order to do this, we will need to fully embrace the potential of technology to advance our processes across the project lifecycle. With these new tools, a vision for the future and passion for the challenge, we will be fully prepared to take action on the complex projects that will drive our infrastructure construction through 2030 and beyond.
Ron Bisio is senior vice president for Trimble Geospatial.