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03 Apr 2017
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I applaud the new presidential administration’s focus on the U.S.’s infrastructure at the federal, state and municipal level as well as the acknowledgment that now is the time for action through investment.
Where we were once world leaders, the lack of investment in maintaining existing infrastructure coupled with modest development (and in some cases underdevelopment) in new and improved infrastructure has hampered our ability to move goods and services and detracted from our overall productivity.
The U.S. interstate highway system is now 60 years old. Our rail system not only needs updating but expansion. Our water infrastructure needs significant refurbishment. And while the incoming administration is pledging to fund programs, we need to find ways to make the money that will be invested go further.
We know from recent studies the current state of U.S. infrastructure, but we also know that states are beginning to take action at their level, as well as the new administration. Now is the time for not just fixing infrastructure but employing technology and the latest advances to improve our roadway, rail, and water systems.
We see significant momentum building. The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, which re-authorizes surface transportation programs through Fiscal Year 2020, was a great first step and we expect to see infrastructure spending pick up throughout 2017.
Several important infrastructure ballot initiatives were passed in the November election, and a number of state governors are taking action to make infrastructure funding a high priority.
A much-needed funding source is non-public investment in infrastructure. We know that there are billions of dollars available for investment if a greater flow of bankable infrastructure projects can be identified and managed.
We must invest in more economic ways to maintain our infrastructure, and we need to investigate alternative funding methods for the projects that do go forward. Making the expenditures more palatable to governments and voters alike will reduce the fear of increased taxes. Public-private partnerships (P3s) are certainly playing a key role in helping to fill the infrastructure funding gap but other investment methods will be needed if investment by pension funds and other institutions is to be accelerated.
Better investment products will help but there are also some fundamental issues in the industry that need to be addressed if infrastructure is to become more attractive to investors. Recent research by McKinsey shows that the infrastructure industry does poorly in completing mega projects on time, on budget, and to specification. According to McKinsey, nearly 98 percent of these projects suffer cost overruns of more than 30 percent. This is a huge risk, and with risk profile being a major consideration for investors, it is an issue that must be addressed.
The advancement of new technologies and our better understanding of how they can increase efficiency is helping to minimize some project risks. Data is king in many industries, especially in construction engineering inspection where access to real-time data from anywhere at any moment is essential to managing projects safely and efficiently, while sticking to budgets and completion schedules. More time onsite, less time behind a desk and anytime access to project data prompted us to develop Atkins ASSIST.
Designed to aid our staff in collecting field information, ASSIST is an e-toolbox that automates hard copy data sheets. For us, it saves time, streamlines information sharing and allows more face-to-face interaction with clients and our partners on the project site. For clients, information needed to assess materials, measure progress and make critical project decisions is at their fingertips, thanks to technology.
Also, virtual reality is giving us the ability to model the real world accurately in many dimensions and then, using real-time data from the Internet of Things (IoT), to continuously improve, model change, and predict outcomes using Building Information Modeling (BIM). Existing modeling approaches which take months or years can now happen instantaneously.
We used our Atkins-developed 4D visual integration support (4D VIS) tool on a design project to update and modernize cadet barracks and facilities at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. 4D VIS is a web-based system that integrates 3D building information, project and site data, schedule, risk identification and mitigation to help synchronize project activities, and detect and resolve construction conflicts. From barracks renovation to rail and transit projects, 4D VIS simplifies the construction management process.
Today, more than 99 percent of physical objects remain unconnected…what an opportunity. If we invest in infrastructure that is technology enabled, we can pave the way not only for the future of connected autonomous vehicles, but also for a more connected and efficient country. We’re already helping Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) revolutionize its transportation system through their RoadX program, as well as assisting other states, like Nevada, as they develop solutions around intelligent mobility.
With RoadX, CDOT’s leadership is focused on making a monumental shift from relying only on hard capital assets to improve safety and mobility, to further embracing innovation and technology as solutions for reducing deadly accidents, alleviating traffic delays and communicating road conditions to travelers.
As a RoadX champion, we serve as an advisor, helping CDOT use innovation and technology to transform the state’s aging transportation system. Operating as an extension of staff, our role is to assist in moving projects from conception through procurement to construction. We engage with leaders from public organizations and private industry who are all working together, bringing the brightest innovators to the table from Colorado, across the nation and around the world.
As a team member for Nevada Department of Transportation's (NDOT) Project Neon, the largest freeway project in the state’s history, we are managing all design and engineering services, including the Active Traffic Management (ATM) system. Project Neon’s ATM is more robust than any of the systems we have designed across the country, mainly because of the full-color, oversized digital displays that offer lane-specific control, variable speed limits, real-time messaging and enhanced functionality that allows for a myriad of traffic management system solutions to be integrated. The ATM is pivotal in supporting NDOT’s goals and the overall project construction plan that underscores safety and driver awareness as success factors.
Technology such as drones are now being used in our sector on construction sites and in other areas, replacing the need for staff on the ground, reducing health and safety risks, and lowering costs. Imagery collected by drones can be automatically processed and fed into BIM, allowing better, more efficient project management.
Working with our partners, 3DR Robotics and Autodesk, we recently helped orchestrate a first for the aviation industry by successfully flying a drone over Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the busiest airport in the world. We are providing engineering services to the airport and we needed data related to the West ground transportation curb, and North and South parking garages, which are being demolished and rebuilt.
Working closely with the airport and the Federal Aviation Administration, we obtained a waiver to conduct seven drone flights over a 40-acre area, quickly capturing more than 700 nadir and oblique images inside a tightly controlled airspace. 3DR uploaded the images into a cloud-based program, where they were automatically processed into accurate 3D point clouds. We will use the models to plan the demolition process and organize construction to minimize effects on the airport’s daily activities.
Controlling and integrating the entire supply chain, using technology and collaboration, from design to construction right through to ongoing facilities management enables asset owners to better manage risk and deliver an infrastructure life cycle approach.
Off-site fabrication and robotics are automating parts of the construction process and will be increasingly used in U.S. construction in the future. There is an opportunity here to greatly reduce disruption to cities and their residents and to expedite construction phases, further minimizing risk.
Applying technology solutions along with detailed engineering expertise has the potential to greatly improve the way we execute work, and in turn, the quality of life for all Americans.
Clearly, these are exciting times for the A/E/C industry. With the promise of significant funding for infrastructure both at the state and federal levels, the U.S. could finally see the infrastructure renaissance we’ve been hoping for.
This article was originally published in the April 2017 edition of Civil and Structural Engineer Magazine.
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