At SPAR 2013Ron Singh, Engineering Automation Manager/Chief of Surveys, Oregon Department of Transportation (DoT) made a startling proposal that would stand the traditional highway construction process on its head by making the post-construction as-built survey the critical source of reliable survey and asset information in the form of a geo-referenced 3D BIM model (also known as horizontal BIM, heavy BIM, VDC, civil information modeling, BIM on its side, and BIM for infrastructure) and associated scanned and other data. One of the implications of this is that when a new project is initiated in the same area over 80 % of the necessary survey-grade information is already available in the DoT's geospatially-enabled database making the traditional complete resurvey unnecessary - saving time and money. Ron foresees that one of the consumers of this digital highway information would be autonomous vehicles.
This year at the Spar 3D 2016 Expo and Conference in Houston I had a chance to sit down with Ron to see how his and other DoTs have progressed on his vision since then.
It was very successful. I did this on behalf of the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) who approached me and said they planned to do an event similar to the one I organized in 2010 which was called Design to Dozer. In that one we used digital technology including automated GPS-equipped dozers, graders, and excavators to build a sub grade of a road. It was well attended and it really made a change for my DoT.
The FHA asked me to do another one to promote the use of intelligent construction technologies by providing information and training relating to 3D design, automated machine guidance (AMG) and related technologies for highway construction. This time I decided to go all the way to paving including ditches, culverts, and drainage. I called it Design to Paver. We invited the DoTs from the18 Western States plus Florida, North Carolina, and Michigan. From each Dot we invited their chief engineer and their chief construction engineer. Altogether we had about 250 people at the event. It was a two day event and combined classroom work in the morning with on-site in afternoon.
This event included building a demonstration road but I wanted to build one we wouldn't have to tear up and restore. I found a piece of land that was a training facility for the Oregon National Guard. It was a big complex of about 40 or 50 acres and had been a training site since WWII. I went out to see the site and met with them and their environmental people. I sketched out a plan for a road about 1500 feet long. I picked a site where the road would gain 200 feet in elevation because I wanted it to be fairly complex. I wanted to make some radical curves with superelevations and exaggerated superelevations, so we would have some drainage issues to deal with. I wanted it to look like a real road and have some interesting geometry. No underground utilities. I wanted to take it from bare earth to a finished 1500 foot road with several curves, ditches, culverts, and paved in less than 2 days. I don't know exactly but with a traditional approach this would probably have required about a week's work. We could actually have done it in less than two days, but we were demonstrating.
We did all the surveying for the site months in advance. We also had a geo-referenced 3D design model with rendering and animation. We brought in the construction equipment the day before. We had training sessions for the operators on safety including unexploded ordnance since this was a military training site.
I chunked the 1500 feet of road out in pieces and choreographed the whole thing. For example, the dozer operator on each section of the road did not break ground until the audience showed up. They stepped out of the buses and on their badges they had colour codes which allocated them to a team of about 25 people. Each group would go to station A at staggered times. At station A they would be showed automated dozer operation. Then at a certain time they would go to station B and so on. It was very well coordinated.
What impact do you think the event had on the highway engineers who attended ?
It was amazing - the feedback through the emails I received was so positive. People still talk about it. If you go to any of the DoTs who attended, the staff who had been there were just amazed. One of the reasons is that what we were able to show them was something that would have taken a single individual many, many years to see, because none of them had experienced a project with automated equipment from breaking ground to paving. They were able to experience it all in 2 days. We had all types of equipment, dozers, excavators, curb machines, paving machines, and so on. We even had unmanned aircraft system (UAVs) for monitoring the construction and ground penetrating radar systems for detecting underground utilities.
We created a web site DesignToPaver.org which we intend to leave up for two more years. There is a guide book which you can download. It has more than the agenda. It has all the names of all the companies and presenters. If you would like to ask somebody questions, you can find that information in there.
Do you think the road map and time frame for 3D models and construction automation that you outlined is still realistic or is it accelerating?
The technology behind autonomous vehicles is really accelerating as is the engineering automation of highway construction, but the social and legal aspects of highway construction may be the barriers that are keeping it in check. If it were only up to to the technology we would be there much quicker, but I think the social and legal aspects are actually providing good balance, by making sure we are not breaking something that we can't replace.
You mentioned the legal aspects, do you think new legislation will be required to enable to the full digitialization of highway construction and maintenance ?
As long as you put a box around the question and restrict it to engineering automation, not autonomous cars, I think we are well-suited to get there with the existing laws. I could imagine that to further capitalize on this technology, legislation to register another profession, such as remote sensing, might be beneficial. I don't necessarily feel that it has to be a surveyor's function to do, let's say, mobile mapping or UAV mapping. I feel it needs to be somebody who is licensed, who has gone through training, who is able to prove that they know how to do this work, and who maintains ongoing professional development training. The key requirement is that they stand behind their products in a legal sense.
There are many different technologies for capturing data now, even a consumer digital camera can be used to create a point cloud. If I am a highway engineer how do I decide what data I can rely on for designing a highway ?
The data that has the level of rigour required for engineering design is what I call authoritative data. As an example, if you intend to use a boat with a sonar system and cameras for underwater bathymetric surveying in search of treasure, that's fine. I don't think anyone should regulate that. But if you are going to use the same tools to model bathymetry for the design of a public bridge, then it better be authoritative. It better be data that you can track the lineage and source of.
One of the key questions I have is about the database of digital data including, in the case of Oregon, data from overflights and mobile LiDAR for the entire state highway system plus the digital as-built models and other data from actual construction projects. Who do you see is responsible for maintaining this database including updates from ongoing highway maintenance work ?
In Oregon we think we at the DoT are responsible for maintaining it. As long as it is inside our corridor, it was either created by us or by our agents, companies that we hired. There is tremendous value in this data, but the value is only there if in the future people feel confident in using the data. For that they need to know its provenance. For example, if you consider our as-built plans, we have had these for generations, but we don't rely on them for anything but to help us find things. We don't rely on them for survey data, because the current as-builts were never created with that in mind.
If we collected very accurate, very rich data and we didn't track its lineage including metadata about how it was captured and when, a future engineering user would legitimately say I don't trust it, because I have no narrative about this data, for example, even something as fundamental as what coordinate system it is in. But if we can compile all this information together in the form of comprehensive metadata that gives the future user trust in its provenance and reliability, then there should be nothing to prevent the data from being reused.
Are contractors who bit to build roads in Oregon interested in the data you are collecting - do they ask you for it ?
For construction project work, when we use mobile LiDAR or terrestrial laser scanning, we are very careful about precision, for example, we put in ground control points. We do the entire survey in such a way that we end up with a certain level of accuracy, a certain level of point density, and a certain level of reliability.
When we collect mobile LiDAR data for the whole state, it is impossible to do collect data with the same rigour for the whole state. We don't put ground control points in and we don't do other things that are required for high precision and reliability. The data is still very usable for many things, but it is not authoritative, high accuracy survey data, that is required for engineering design.
If you are planning a project in an area where there was a previous project with a digital model, high precision data including ground control points and high density laser scans, would you tell contractors planning to bid on the project about the existing data ?
Absolutely. If we don' t tell them then we might as well as had not collected, documented (metadata) and stored it. We have to tell them because it helps drive the cost down. To give you some background, our first automated machine guidance (AMG) project was in 1997. In Oregon some contractors had invested in AMG technology and wanted to use it. In those days contractors who had done this were winning the bids by lowering their bid just enough to beat the other contractors. When they did the work with AMG technology, they saved a lot of money, but most of the savings was going to the contractors, not to the DoT. To redress this, starting in early 2015, we began specifying on our bid web site that projects were "AMG ready". We provide all the data we have which they can download to see the models, mobile LiDAR, overflight data, and so on. The effect is to drive bids down, because there is less risk for the contractor. Asa result we at the DoT are now sharing in the savings.
Is Oregon alone among DoTs in applying these technologies or are other DoTs also applying them ?
There are about five or six that are leaders in using different aspects of digital technology. For example, the Wisconsin DoT is focusing on 3D design - they are ahead of us in this technology. Michigan is leading in some areas, for example, data storage and data management. We met with them because we were interested to finding out what they were doing with engineering data management. In return they were interested in what we were doing with 3D design and AMG. Utah his way ahead of most DoTs in asset management. None of the DoTs including us are applying every aspect of 3D digital highway construction and maintenance.
Are there any ROI studies demonstrating the financial benefits of these digital technologies ?
We are doing one. We have a research project we call the OSU Engineering Automation project with Oregon State University in Corvalis. They are studying our entire engineering automation process. They have already put a good project team together. The final report is due by next April, about a year from now.