The surge in infrastructure projects embracing data-driven design and construction is delivering huge benefits to governments, asset owners, contractors and the general public. Deanna Hutchinson, CEO of the Spatial Industries Business Association, discusses the trends from 2018 and projections for the year ahead.
How is data changing the design and construction of infrastructure, and why is spatial information a central theme?
I really feel like we’re on the cusp of sweeping changes to how the public engages with infrastructure development, and this is positive. Spatial information deals with the location of things, relative to each other, size and space. Typically we talk about spatial in terms like surveying, GIS, and more recently BIM. After all, infrastructure stakeholders have a responsibility to manage legal responsibilities to landowners, the public and government — who owns what?
They also need to manage assets — where are my assets and what condition are they in? And to validate planning — what are the travel patterns of commuters? How does the proposed train station impact property values in an area? This has been going on for decades with digital data and processes playing an increasingly more prominent role.
The change I am sensing is more a move toward layered, variable data in decision making that simultaneously considers social and environmental impact, demand, land information, finance and regulation, in context and in ways that have not traditionally been dynamically connected.
Who needs the infrastructure most? Where are they? Where and when do they most need it? How will they use it? What impact will it have on the environment and liveability? What will it cost and who will pay? What policy frameworks are relevant? What will make it as efficient as possible? Where can savings be made? What are the alternatives? What other infrastructure is nearby? How might construction be best managed? Community Insight Australia and Auckland University have been working at the front of this movement, combining multiple datasets to improve planning and ultimately, infrastructure development.
Community Insight Australia provides software that converts Australian Bureau of Statistics data into maps. It gives more people without quantitative backgrounds an ability to quickly and easily access more information for their work. This means more quantitative information in asset allocation decisions and program design. New services are being designed for key locations with the knowledge of how many children in the user-defined area, how many families don’t speak English at home and how many households don’t own a car.
Similarly the New Zealand Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) (Auckland University) was developed to better utilise existing data to empower communities, especially those with socioeconomic disadvantages. The IMD is designed to reduce inequities in society, or simply to better understand the neighbourhoods we live in, through informed research, policies and practices.
In Victoria, GHD has delivered an interactive story map for the North East Link Authority. Project maps are usually static rather than dynamic and interactive, and are often designed from an engineering perspective rather than the perspective of the most important project stakeholders — the local community. Through the Explore North East Link story map, GHD and the North East Link Authority have put people at the centre of the infrastructure design and engagement process, delivering an interactive, engaging experience for interested parties to explore the key details of the project and understand key project decisions in more detail.
What are some examples of spatial technologies that are being implemented in the infrastructure industry?
Laser scanning is the big thing in data capture for infrastructure right now. It’s being applied to maintenance programs, like the work being done by Jacobs, and Roads and Maritime Services on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The project hopes to allow comprehensive analysis of a wide range of structurally important features of the bridge, and to protect it from future issues, especially environmental factors such as corrosion. Considering the bridge is consistently moving due to loads and changes in temperature, this is a complex task to undertake with high accuracy.
A well-designed survey control network was done in tandem with laser scanning being used to identify bridge contraction and expansion, and extensive CADD modelling; a difficult task to undertake on a structure as old as the Harbour Bridge. Survey results greatly assisted with understanding the actual movement patterns and magnitude of the bridge structure, and customised modelling procedures were developed to identify an inordinate amount of rivets, hatches, brackets and other structural bodies. Whilst generally encompassing, the survey highlighted specific areas for technological advancement, and a large amount of new observations about the behaviour of the bridge were able to be made.
It’s really setting a new standard for surveying that sits at the heart of digital engineering and BIM implementation, and is offering asset owners a pathway toward virtual twins. A digital model of the Gold Coast’s Sundale Bridge, which was created from laser scans and photogrammetry, was used to inform designs for an additional lane and inadvertently moved the needle on digital. Liam Thierens from Bennett + Bennett, who built the model for Gold Coast City Council, said this project ultimately became a pilot for digital transformation within Council. “It sparked a strategic discussion about how to transition from analogue to digital engineering,” he said.
Drones are the other emerging darling of digital engineering. They have provided access to a sweet spot for airborne scanning over small-scale areas where traditional aircraft are cost prohibitive and satellites can’t provide the required resolution or frequency of capture. I am thinking of projects like Taylors’ Grand Prix track design and construction project. The goal was to construct an innovative and customised solution to incorporate geospatial information into the practical application of
construction of all track and event facilities at the Australian Grand Prix Corporation. Every piece of infrastructure placed, when turning parkland into a grand prix circuit, has its exact positioning provided by Taylors.
A detailed and extremely accurate 3D Reality Model of the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix site was created via drone photogrammetry, laser scans, survey data and GPS information. Using the Reality Model, the AGPC was able to reduce on-site planning, identify possible safety issues and perform pre-event troubleshooting. Given the Grand Prix is a temporary overlay with very limited time for event setup and dismantling, this has been extremely beneficial.
What are the main benefits of spatial technologies for Australia’s infrastructure?
In 2018, I wrote about a single point of truth being a current “holy grail” in infrastructure. This remains the case. We are seeing a lot more projects focused on collaboration between asset owners right across the infrastructure supply chain, with the impacts ranging from cost savings to improved risk management. Ultimately this is translating into new initiatives or scope expansion on current projects.
The Spatial Services team of the NSW Department of Financial Services and Innovation won the NSW Award for People and Community for the 3D Theatre of Operations for Splendour in the Grass. The 3D “theatre” comprised 3D imagery, live feeds of video, asset and personnel tracking, fusing 3D imagery and GIS information, as well as artificial intelligence (AI) tools such as crowd counting and dynamic feature extraction from video streaming. Although created at short notice, the system was successful in allowing dynamic management of any incidents, with overall imagery available live at any given moment. This resulted in a higher level of safety throughout the event for both staff and the attendees.
What are the main challenges Australia’s infrastructure industry is facing that spatial information is helping to overcome?
Continuity of service, disaster resilience and operating costs seem to be thematically common to the projects being recognised in the Asia Pacific Spatial Excellence Awards.
What are some of the key trends for 2019?
Progression of the digital built environment/3D/digital twins agenda is a topic on everybody’s lips. There are several initiatives around Oceania focusing on answering the question “How do I get all my contributors, contractors and consultants to get their information together?” One of my favourites is the previously mentioned NSW Spatial Services Reality Model for Splendour in the Grass.
How is open data impacting spatial information in infrastructure?
Ah, open data. Many of the projects I’ve mentioned leverage one form or another of open data to deliver novel capabilities in infrastructure management. This is very important for Australia’s infrastructure, so much so, it’s a kind of infrastructure in its own right. Two main themes come to mind:
- How is Australia developing a national critical spatial data infrastructure (including foundation spatial datasets) to support the rest of our economy?
- The ongoing debate about whether open = free, and vice versa
Much of the information needed to make better decisions about infrastructure (which are by and large public assets) is paid for and held by the government, and for many years was invisible to mostly everyone except the discrete department responsible for its collection and storage. The open data movement is a recognition that a lot of data has utility beyond its original purpose and everyone benefits from this information being made appropriately available for public benefit.
The challenge indicated by my second point is that some of this information was acquired under licence, and therefore its reuse or distribution is restricted. Commercialisation of government services is also introducing some curve balls in relation to open data management. The discussion about foundation spatial datasets has traditionally sought to provide certainty around the use and availability (including price) of datasets that are considered fundamental to growing Australia’s spatial information consumption and related benefits. It is ongoing.
The good news is that all levels of government in all jurisdictions are engaging in improving the quality and quantity of data that is being made open. This is increasing the urgency for standards to guide appropriate use, especially with increased use by users without formal spatial training. For example taking 1mm measurements from a 10m resolution dataset is probably going to yield an unhappy outcome sooner or later.
There is much work to be done here and both owners and users of the data are involved in shaping the standards. Many of the challenges involve inadequate metadata or obscure field naming conventions that in some cases render the data unusable for anything but the original intent.
The spatial industry advocates for open data in machine readable formats. Open really means accessible, usable. Cloud computing, AI and space infrastructure are both demanding and providing solutions for modern approaches to capture, store, manage, access and distribute spatial data. This is new infrastructure for Australia, and governments are currently defining our requirements for sovereign information infrastructure.
Resolving all of this is the real challenge underpinning our adoption of a true digital built environment. Progress is encouraging; further disruption is required to reach utopia though!
Are there any recent projects or research that stand out to you as innovative or cutting edge in regards to spatial technologies?
Our annual spatial excellence awards give us an insight into some of the leading projects in our region — we received over 150 entries in our APSEA awards across Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands this year, and all of the projects mentioned in this article are winners in their region. These projects are currently being judged in the national finals and winners will be announced at the Locate Conference in April.
The developments in sensor technologies are spawning a lot of really interesting activity. I am thinking of Monitum and Land Solution Australia in Brisbane. Monitum is a new technology business that is owned and operated by consulting surveyors and technology specialists. Their traditional consulting surveying business Land Solution Australia has a reputation as a trusted advisor to many large infrastructure and construction companies.
Over the past five years, they have evolved their business to working with a range of remote monitoring devices for construction applications. In 2018, Land Solution picked up the award for Spatial Enablement for the Herston Quarter project which is contributing to the preservation of heritage buildings during the redevelopment of the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital.
What’s unique about this work is the way they have integrated traditional measurement techniques to deliver trust in emerging technology. They are an example of how to successfully leverage traditional professional surveying skills to successfully deliver outcomes into the new economy, allowing the proliferation of trusted decision making for the construction industry.
Monitum is reporting real-time structural changes in land and built environment with millimetre accuracy, enabling builders and asset owners to
respond in near real time to precise changes in the working environment. This is the dream the spatial industry sells, and Monitum one business that’s certainly making it a reality.
What needs to happen to continue to increase the growth of the spatial industry?
I think we need to focus more on creating new spaces for collaborative problem solving. I see many activities that are trying to force innovative thinking onto legacy systems, and as a result, many people with flat spots on their foreheads from banging their heads against brick walls. Recently I’ve attended a number of meetings with “unusual” suspects in the room. As a result of the people having previously had little interaction, the conversation has naturally evolved to something novel and new, rather than a new flavour of an old thing.
The result is an opportunity to develop something completely innovative, and in so doing, build new skills and relationships that somehow automatically help find a way through the previously stuck legacy issues. I think this will be really obvious as new business models emerge for commercialising spatial information.
An example is the $155.6 million Northern Adelaide Irrigation Scheme (NAIS) which will see new water treatment facilities built within the Bolivar precinct of Adelaide to increase its production of recycled irrigation water by 60 per cent. The Northern Adelaide Irrigation Scheme (NAIS) is an initiative developed under the Primary Industries and Regions SA (PIRSA) led Northern Adelaide Plains Agribusiness Initiative. The purpose is to expand the beneficial use of recycled water through the augmentation of the Bolivar Wastewater Treatment Plant. This project will deliver up to 12GL (Stage 1) of reclaimed water suitable for commercial food production.
Spatial technology was employed in a range of ways, including Location Feasibility Assessment, Concept Design, Integration of Services and DB4YD data, development of field workflow for geotechnical data capture, linking of geotechnical and groundwater reporting, integration of Issued for Construction (IFC) design data, detailed engineering survey, continued progression of geotechnical field testing, drone footage over site.
I also think the way we work with dynamic datasets will be critical to our ability to keep up with developments linked to the Internet of Things (IoT). When this area explodes, we will likely feel it most via competition for talent. Australia has been aware of the need for a STEM-skilled workforce for many years. Being able to develop real-world solutions leveraging IoT capability (which the public already expects) requires the combined STEM skill set.
Autonomous vehicles are a classic example. I fear we are nowhere near ready for the demand that will arise when multiple industries simultaneously compete for that skills set. It’s not far away, and the lead time to develop a pipeline of skilled people is still too long. We also have the challenge of developing technicians and technical professionals with strong commercial acumen. Startup incubators are filling an important niche here. Businesses need to see them as part of developing their existing workforce, beyond stimulating new market sectors.
I find it interesting that governments are engaging closely with this part of the innovation ecosystem in part to improve their own innovation appetite. This has positive and negative consequences for incumbents who need to be alert to resultant changing requirements of their government customers. This is a space to watch; I do believe it will set the scene for our economy over the coming years.
What do you see as the future of spatial technologies in infrastructure?
Developments in Australia’s space capability will most certainly have an impact in the short-medium term. By the time this article is printed, I imagine we’ll know the outcome of the SmartSAT CRC bid. Indeed, during 2018, more than 80 space startups were active in the market in Australia, 5G became a political issue, and the Federal Government invested $330 million in spatial infrastructure — the Satellite Based Augmentation System (SBAS), and Digital Earth Australia, which is supercharging access to
satellite imagery for a range of applications.
SBAS in particular provides improvements in positioning and, in combination with growth in nano satellites for IoT sensing devices, will exponentially increase the amount of data available for lots of economic activity, including infrastructure. Drone use will benefit from improvements to spatial analytics tools and platforms, which form part of the space infrastructure. 5G will give us improved data mobility.
So, we’ll have more data and more tools to derive valuable insights from the data from wherever we are. I don’t yet foresee the Jetsons experience that entrepreneur Steve Baxter is hoping for, but with hyperloops and Uber-ised rockets close to launch, who knows what’s around the corner?