/ Column / Oversite: New Tools Measure and Model What Can’t Be Seen

Oversite: New Tools Measure and Model What Can’t Be Seen

Matt Ball on September 30, 2015 - in Column

In every infrastructure project, whether renewal or new construction, there’s a need to gather a lot of site-specific information prior to embarking on preliminary design. The rigor and detail put into this process often can have high stakes for how successfully the project meets its objectives and budget.

Increasingly, this data-collection process is becoming more automated, and the workflow from data capture to design is more fluid. It also has become far-more detailed and realistic: data can be widely shared without needing special interpretation skills or software.

Hardware that captures data and software that helps see and measure the real world have gotten much better. And new innovations extend sensing and measurement capabilities to things unseen by human eyes. Uncovering what’s hidden is a valuable new capability, and this month’s cover story marries above- and below-ground sensing—a game changer for how projects get planned and prioritized.

Making Measurements

The process of data capture and measurement is in the realm of our sister publication, <I>Earth Imaging Journal<I>, where there’s considerable crossover when it comes to site preparation and planning as well as monitoring for maintenance issues. Many of its readers employ satellite, airborne and mobile sensing platforms for engineering firms or Departments of Transportation, because such data are crucial for planning and design.

The ability to capture information at engineering-grade accuracy is important, but it’s nothing without becoming inputs for models and decision making. In the infrastructure world, these measurements improve understanding of the built environment and aid design by ensuring that what’s designed fits into the context of what exists.

The ongoing monitoring of infrastructure poses another growing area of interest and concern, and underground infrastructure is in the greatest need. With aging water networks, the United States faces a considerable challenge, with an average of 700 water-main breaks per year. Replacement projects are the most-effective means to ensure success, but they’re extremely expensive and disruptive. Instead, what’s needed is a better way to understand conditions as well as repair before damage is done. Similarly, excavations that hit buried power or gas lines are an ongoing issue with safety and service implications. National statistics show that a utility line is damaged by digging every three minutes.

Seeing and Relating

The underground challenge again ties neatly to the cover story, where capturing above- and below-ground data provides an understanding of what’s buried as well as how it relates to what we see.

With continuing utility-installation work, the underground built environment gains complexity with each project. Data often are poorly captured and shared, particularly any old 2D plan sheets that must be found, often in a file drawer, and then interpreted. This time-consuming process often is skipped, as the dubious reliability of old plans means they aren’t consulted, leading to costly re-collection of information.

The goal, and promise, of this new marriage of technologies is to stop piecing together insight from old records and instill the ability to quickly capture detailed models of what exists. This will save significant time and effort. More importantly, if we stop breaking things as we build, or fix things before they break, the money savings could be huge.

Cutting Out Chaos

Making sense of existing conditions is one of the many ways we’re becoming more informed about infrastructure. The new tools for detailed 3D data capture close a loop in prior practice, where what’s built often isn’t what appears on plans. Having a detailed “as-built” record is important at the start of every project as well as for ongoing checks against the model as construction progresses or monitoring conditions of a changing world.

You’ve certainly heard the old adage: “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.” Although that’s true, new forms of measurement, with their clarity and completeness, are set to dramatically change how people manage projects and maintain built environments. Perhaps it’s time for a new adage: “the quality of your management is equal to the quality of your measurements.”


Matt Ball

About Matt Ball

Matt Ball is founder and editorial director of V1 Media, publisher of Informed Infrastructure, Earth Imaging Journal, Sensors & Systems, Asian Surveying & Mapping and the video news site GeoSpatial Stream.

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