BIM, 3D Photospheres and AR R&D Project Update

In our previous post we announced the kick off of our R&D project with the University of Bristol. This research project, which is co-funded by the UK Government Innovation Agency (InnovateUK), aims to democratise access to BIM within operations and maintenance by using 3D photorealistic environments and augmented reality.

Achieving this will provide the education sector (schools and MATs etc.) and the commercial sector with access to pragmatic, affordable and leading edge technology to help maintain buildings and assets.

This post describes our progress so far with 5 months still to run.

Capturing 3D Photospheres

Our first activity was to visit several schools to collect a range of photospheres from rooms and spaces of differing sizes, shapes and lighting conditions.  We also gathered excellent ideas and feedback from school business managers on how the project could be used to assist with managing and maintaining school buildings and assets.

Collecting Photospheres
Fig 1 Collecting photospheres at The King’s School

From this work we’ve been able to assess the optimum number of photospheres needed in order to provide proper fields of view for an entire room which might not be a simple square or rectangular shape and also in many instances will have furniture or equipment obscuring the field of vision.

Importantly this process has also shown how quick, easy and cost-effective it is to collect the photospheres using a 3D camera with a connected smartphone. This is essential as we want our users to have the capability to do this work themselves without having to use external resources although this is a future service we’ll be providing for those that want it.

We’ve also shown that multiple, inter-connected photospheres will be required so that a user can fully explore a class room or office by virtually walking through it whether that’s a relatively small room or a larger space such as the assembly hall in figure 2.

Photosphere
Fig 2 Churchill Academy Assembly Hall photosphere

This is particularly important in order to provide the right level of coverage to ensure it’s possible to zoom into a feature or asset anywhere in the room e.g. a fire alarm or lighting switch.

This work also showed the need to assess the ability to read augmented reality markers in a room based on size, angle and distance from the smartphone’s camera. The results of these tests are currently being evaluated.

Integrating Photospheres and 2D Floor and Site Plans

Photospheres have been integrated into 2D plans within AltoSites. This means users can collect the photospheres and position them on a floor or site plan.

 

Photosphere marker integrated into a 2D floor plan
Fig 3 Photosphere marker integrated into a 2D floor plan

The extract below shows the ease of displaying a photosphere linked to a 2D plan.

With this integration in place we are now assessing how assets and maintenance/service request details located on the 2D plan can be augmented onto the photosphere for that room or space.

Stakeholder Engagement – Early project win!

During our discussions with business managers they’ve identified that as well as using the photospheres for operational asset and maintenance purposes they’re much better than photographs to provide stakeholders with an interactive visual perspective of a room or space.  Typical uses would be:

  • At school governor meetings to better visualise and provide a virtual experience of the condition of school buildings needing refurbishment or replacing.
  • To show new or refurbished facilities to help promote a school to prospective parents;
  • To promote the school’s facilities for use by external organisations to help generate income.

Given the interest in this we’re launching a service to provide:

  1. the capability for a school or organisation to take photospheres themselves (or we can do this as a service) and
  2. software which you can integrate into your website to display the photospheres

For more information on this new service please contact us.

If you’d like to receive notification of further project updates please register via the ‘Subscribe for email updates’ window, or provide your contact  details or simply check back in a couple of months’ time!

Democratising BIM through light weight on-site imaging

BIM, photospheres and augmented reality
Current 2D plan and map functionality extended to BIM, AR and photo-realism

In a previous post I described how we undertook a joint research project with the University of Bristol (UoB) to assess how various technologies, including Google Tango™, can help the education sector manage and maintain assets, buildings and estates. This has now led to a nine month R&D project with the UoB, co-funded by the UK Government Innovation Agency (InnovateUK).

This post is the first in a series of bi-monthly updates on our progress.

Why are we doing this R&D?

Currently the vast majority of education and smaller organisations managing buildings and assets do not use Building Information Modelling (BIM) in their day-to-day operations.  There are various reasons for this such as:

  • The need for specialised and expensive hardware/software, skills, expertise and software.
  • BIM data simply isn’t available because of the age of the buildings being maintained.
  • The complexity involved is off-putting to many.
  • Current BIM processes tend to be focused on design whereas our users’ interests are in the maintenance of assets and buildings.

This is why our strategy of ‘Bringing Simplicity from Complexity’ and applying this to asset and maintenance management is key to wider adoption. We achieve this simplicity by using a highly visual approach. For example, AltoSites our asset and maintenance software, uses maps and floor and site plans.

A class room showing augmented maintenance data
Prototype illustrating how augmented data can be overlaid onto a real world class room.

This project extends our existing mobile capability by offering users a more immersive experience – one that allows them to easily see and record data as illustrated to the left.

 

The Technology (Mobile, 3D Environments and Augmented Reality)

Using 2D plans, photospheres and augmented markers.
Using 2D plans, photospheres and augmented markers.

This R&D will bring a disruptive step change to mobile data collection and will also encourage wider adoption of BIM. Harnessing various technologies, combined with new software tools which are easy to use and affordable, will encourage widespread use within an organisation – the democratisation effect referred to in our project’s title. For example, this will help a building’s site maintenance staff and other stakeholders such as teaching staff in a school or university record and access information.

Our ambition is to leap frog existing state-of-the art mobile apps by providing suitably accurate onsite data capture and information access through the creation of interactive user environments that combine visually-realistic onsite imaging and BIM, asset and maintenance information. Innovations in augmented reality and mobile device innovations, such as the capture and display of 3D environments, allow us to explore how users can easily access and interact with combined digital and physical information.

What will it mean to you?

If you’re inspecting assets and buildings and need to record data and access information across the estate it’ll make your work easier. Augmented reality provides enhanced visualisation combined with locational context meaning you get to focus on the data that’s relevant to your position and you can also access other information e.g. from BIM, plans or internal reports.

This new software solution will lead to a step change in productivity. There will be improvements in operational efficiency such as staff utilization and productivity. No manual data collection nor re-keying of data will be required reducing inaccuracies, data redundancy and saving time. Better maintenance planning and works will lead to more productive and safer, fit-for-purpose workplace.

This R&D will also ensure that the solution is uniquely capable of being adopted by non-specialists. This means building users as well as site maintenance staff can use it. For example, school administration and teaching staff could report maintenance issues or make service requests. Putting this capability in the hands of front line staff improves overall quality and responsiveness and is consistent with the “uberisation” trend seen in many industries.

Want to participate or find out more?

We’re very interested in hearing from schools, colleges, universities and private sector organisations who’d like to participate in a short beta programme in October/November, 2017.  No technical experience necessary – simply an open mind and a willingness to provide feedback. To find out more contact us.

If you’d like to receive notification of further project updates please register via the ‘Subscribe for email updates’ window, or provide your contact  details or simply check back in a couple of months’ time!

University R&D Collaboration

We’re an SME with ambitious plans supported by on-going R&D in our software which helps managers responsible for maintaining built environment assets. We wanted to extend our R&D capability by collaborating with a university and maybe you’re an SME wondering if this might help your company – well here’s our experience so far.

Key Requirements

  • Undertake R&D while not compromising existing software development.
  • Connect to academics to take advantage of the expertise, experience and different perspectives they offer.
  • Provide an opportunity for a student to gain some useful work experience.
  • Deliver meaningful results to our business.

We initially considered Innovate UK’s Knowledge Transfer Partnership programme. However, this is suited to projects of 12 months or more and for our first foray into working with a university a shorter timescale was more appropriate. In addition this R&D project only required a period of about 3 months although it might then be extended.

The Work

We approached the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Bristol who explained the potential to work with a paid intern; supervised by the faculty, over a 3 month period. This was ideal from our perspective.

We jointly scoped an R&D project to investigate mobile localisation and visualisation techniques that could help, for example, facilities and school business managers, bursars and site teams responsible for looking after assets and buildings.

Harry Whiskard, an engineering student, expressed interest in the work and joined the project. Harry, supported by the Faculty, undertook proof-of-concept R&D into the use of:

  • Tango™ from Google
  • Photospheres
  • Image recognition.
Google Tango
Tango device

He then tested the outcomes at a school thanks to the support of Alan Neale, School Business Manager, at Churchill Academy and Sixth Form in North Somerset.

Photosphere at Churchill Academy
Photosphere of Design&Technology room at Churchill Academy and Sixth Form

The Result

Harry’s work was extremely valuable in helping to scope what was possible and in identifying the practical limitations of some of the technology.

Floor plan, photosphere augmented marker integration.
Prototype showing a floor plan linked to a photosphere of the gym at Churchill Academy accessible through a smartphone. Two simple markers have been augmented onto the real world view – note the use of perspective to indicate where the markers are in relation to the viewer.
Automatic visual recognition
Trialling automatic visual recognition between physical features and a visual image.

These outcomes have influenced the scope of a new R&D project which is due to start soon and which will see us working with the University of Bristol on a longer project.

As well as the direct outcomes from the R&D project there were other indirect benefits. Working with a university provides an opportunity to step outside the purely commercial world for a while and having open conversations at the university keeps us fresh and receptive to new ideas.

It was also good to offer a student the opportunity to develop their skills and to gain some practical experience which will hopefully help in the future. In Harry’s own words:

“I thoroughly enjoyed my time working with Altuity, it was a very rewarding experience. This project provided me with the opportunity to learn new skills such as software development which otherwise I would not have been able to experience in my degree. It also provided me with insight into the importance of research and how ideas can be developed in the commercial world.”

No matter what the size of your company if you need some assistance and access to wider knowledge then why not contact a university?

Explore what might be possible in terms of working together. There’s plenty of enthusiasm within universities to do this and properly managed it’ll be the classic ‘win-win’.

One final thought – if you do employ an intern do the right thing and pay them!

We’ll be posting an update shortly on the follow up R&D project Harry’s work helped set the scene for…

(Project Tango is a registered trademark of Google Inc.)

Are multi-year software subscriptions for schools value for money?

 

Are software subscriptions value for money?
Software subscriptions – value for money?

Over the years the software industry has undergone transformational change arising from new technology which has led to:

  • Enhanced software functionality
  • Reduced infrastructure costs for users e.g. via cloud delivery
  • Integrated in-office and mobile solutions

These technology changes are complemented by greater flexibility in how software is licensed. The earlier dominance of perpetual licensing has in many sectors given way to subscription based licensing. Subscription licensing is typically offered on a per user or per site basis and depending upon the application terms range from a month to a year with renewal reminders being issued in advance enabling subscribers to cancel if needed.

Subscription licensing enables a software vendor to adopt a more granular approach to licensing. It enables users to subscribe for the functionality they actually intend to use and benefit from rather than having to license an entire package while only using a limited set of functions.

This approach also allows users to start by only licensing the functionality initially required and then expand into other functions at a later date. Given the tremendous variety of need, experience and resources across schools this is an important ability – why should a school incur costs before it needs to? This flexibility provides value for money as licence expenditure is tied more closely with usage.

Multi-year Deals

Sometimes subscription licenses are bundled into multi-year deals for individual schools, federations or multi-academy trusts in exchange for a nominal discount for advance payment. While beneficial to the vendor this type of arrangement is only value for money if a school is operating in a stable and secure environment and the licence provides the flexibility to cope with future changes.

For example, the following could impact upon on your licence:

  • The school’s approach to managing data changes e.g. a school joins a multi-academy trust
  • Maintenance contract changes lead to a different approach to managing data e.g. a new contractor assumes responsibility for data management
  • Senior leadership changes lead to a re-think in systems which support a school

In the above examples can your licence (and any pre-paid subscription!) be novated or transferred without incurring additional charges or penalties?

You also need to be confident that in a long-term, multi-year contract the existing provider will continue to represent excellent value for money. Who can predict what impact future commercial and technological innovations will have in a market? If you want to change provider mid-way through a multi-year subscription in all likelihood the pre-paid license fees are not fully refundable.

As for Altuity – we offer subscriptions which typically renew on a three-month to one year cycle on a pay-by-use basis so that you license the functionality you’re going to be using.  In addition for smaller organisations such as primary schools, who may be using manual or spreadsheet processes, we’re introducing licensing calculated on data usage. This provides an entry-level licensing option tied to usage and not the number of users or pupils which in the past has excluded smaller schools from being able to take advantage of commercially supported and maintained software.

In summary, a headline discount offered as an incentive to commit to a multi-year deal will not always represent long-term value for money. The flexibility offered by shorter terms and different models based on the number of schools (e.g. in a multi-academy trust), users or data usage enables schools to license software according to their needs in a future-proofed way. These options are offered with Altuity’s AltoSites asset and maintenance system.

Spreadsheet assets and reusing site and floor plans

Many asset and maintenance managers have physical and intangible asset information in spreadsheets as illustrated below. This can provide a simple and effective way to manage this information but doesn’t intuitively help with locational context.  The blurring used to hide the data below is also a metaphor for how difficult it is to understand data in this purely textual form.

What if you could take this spreadsheet data and simply and easily manage it in a more visual and intuitive way on site and floor plans?

With increasing amounts of data to manage visualisation creates a picture of your assets helping you immediately and visually see what assets you have; where they’re located and, where relevant their status. These benefits apply to physical and intangible assets. This valuable insight improves day-to-day administration and helps with prioritisation and reporting.

To help users with spreadsheets we’ve enhanced the bulk data loading ability of AltoSites and AltoSUE to provide a number of new features:-

  • Automatically locate data on site and floor plans e.g. by room or asset identifier;
  • Automatically cluster data on plans e.g. where there is a lot of data for a room automatically cluster it for convenience and clarity;
  • Automatically cluster data in defined map locations such as estates, grounds and construction sites;
  • Automatically cluster data in locations defined by a user including by user-definable attribute information e.g. cluster all documents of a particular type together such as separating leases from insurances or by user-definable labels which do not exist in plans.

In addition, as an added feature users can assign their own icons to these clusters so that they can see the data presented in a way which is meaningful to them e.g. a document icon could represent a cluster of documents or a car icon could represent a cluster consisting of vehicle leases.

Example: Floor Plan with room based clusters

In the screen shot below asset data was loaded from a spreadsheet and automatically located to the correct room. The screen shot shows how it’s possible to click on a cluster to ‘explode’ it into its individual records. A user can then click on one of these records to see its information. In this example, the exploded icon contains documents and a filing cabinet style icon is used to denote this. A user can therefore immediately see what type of data this is before even accessing the record.

Spreadsheet assets located on a floor plan
Spreadsheet assets located on a floor plan

Example: Multiple types of records

In this example we can see how different types of data are easily categorised. At the top two markers represent gas connection points; a blue marker in the middle represents a water supply and the two red markers are outstanding defects (one for a window and one for a door).

Floor plan with point assets and a cluster

 

In the middle there is a cluster of four records and the user has chosen to use a customised green icon to represent the cluster rather than the circular icons used in the previous example.

 

 

Floor plan with point assets and an exploded cluster
Floor plan with point assets and an exploded cluster.

 

The screen shot to the right shows this cluster exploded.

The cluster in this example contains compliance documents.

 

 

Example: Clusters and Maps

Clusters can also be used on maps (icons representing single physical or intangible assets can also be used as shown below). This means it’s possible to locate information about features outside of buildings in their proper place. In the example below a cluster of 8 records are positioned in the estate. This could equally be a section of highway or construction site.

Cluster of assets on a map
Cluster of assets on a map

Using these features it becomes easier to understand, find and update data. Separate reporting and analytical capabilities provide further benefits.

To discover how easy it is for you to move into a visual approach to managing your spreadsheet data contact us for an informal discussion.

Maintenance and Multi-Academy Trusts

Multi-Academy Trust Collaboration
Multi-Academy Trust Collaboration

This week’s announcement that all schools in England will either have to convert to Academy status by 2020 or be committed to converting by 2022 has put academies into the spotlight again. Schools currently under local authority control potentially face increased costs as economies of scale available via the authority disappear.

6 out of 10 academies are forecasted to be running a deficit in the next two years placing continual pressures and challenges on school leaders and managers to maximise efficiency and cost savings. Collaborative working has a valuable role in meeting these challenges. Collaboration takes many forms such as Multi-Academy Trusts, federations, clusters or simply an informal working arrangement between schools. This blog for convenience refers to multi-academy trusts although the principles apply to any grouping of schools / academies.

Collaboration provides:

  • Opportunities to get access to services on a shared cost basis enabling schools to take advantage of services previously inaccessible or too expensive to utilise.
  • Income streams to schools offering these services. Typically, these are shared teaching, financial or administrative services.

Saving costs in Asset and Maintenance management

Asset and maintenance management collaboration offers several benefits:

  • Potential cost savings by pooling capital works through larger contracts.
  • Simpler project management and less costs by working with one contractor rather than several across a network of schools.
  • Co-ordinating routine maintenance activities. For example, identifying that several schools require re-painting or refurbishment offers the opportunity to co-ordinate work into higher value contracts. This may secure larger discounts than can be achieved individually.
  • Prioritisation of resources based on need e.g. assessing capital maintenance funding needs and the later allocation of these funds within a multi-academy trust or cluster.

A holistic view of a multi-academy trust’s asset and maintenance requirements is essential to support the above.

Delivering holistic multi-academy maintenance

Bursars and school business managers need to co-ordinate asset and maintenance management requirements.

One approach is to introduce a single maintenance system across the multi-academy trust. However, this may not be appropriate if systems are already in place given the investment a school or academy will have spent already.

An alternative is to integrate disparate

Federated multi-academy maintenance data
Figure 1: Federated multi-academy maintenance data

asset and maintenance data from these systems. This federated approach enables individual schools to continue to use their preferred systems while benefiting by pooling certain data.

 

 

Either approach ideally requires a system which can:

  1. Offer a maintenance capability on its own merits for those academies that wish to use it; and / or
  2. Collate data from other systems to act as a central analytics and reporting portal.

Systems such as Altuity’s AltoSites™ include their own maintenance capability and uses REST API’s to provide connectivity to other systems. Summary information such as planned capital works programmes and maintenance activities could then be shared. Pooled data could also be used for Key Performance Indicators highlighting different issues that maybe facing a MAT’s academies.

Information can be compared very easily using analytics and dashboards. Two example reports are illustrated below.

Comparing Maintenance data in a multi-academy trust
Figure 2: Comparing Maintenance data in a multi-academy trust
Figure 3: Comparing total estimated repair costs in a multi-academy trust

Conclusion

The benefits of collaborative working extend into asset and maintenance management processes. This is achievable via a single cross-academy maintenance solution in a multi-academy trust, federation or cluster or alternatively via a federated approach. This delivers a holistic view of the group’s needs and priorities.

Such capabilities are essential given the ever increasing financial challenges within the education sector.

This blog is an extract from our eBook – click the title to download it – ‘Reducing School Capital and Maintenance Costs

To assess how your multi-academy trust, federation or cluster can benefit in terms of collaborative asset and maintenance management please contact us.

PhysiCAD Research and CAD

Earlier this year, while in discussions with Bristol University, we were asked if we’d like to take part in a new research project called PhysiCAD. Being very focused on delivering highly visual user interfaces in AltoSites and AltoSUE (currently using maps and CAD plans) research in this space was definitely of interest.

CAD Limitations

Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software is highly versatile and useful. It has, in fact, been instrumental in helping foster and maintain the United Kingdom’s reputation for innovation (currently ranked in the top ten countries in the world). However, to be used effectively it requires in-depth knowledge and the time and/or financial resources necessary to properly utilise it. It is, to put it simply, highly complex software and, accordingly, many good ideas are slow to progress or falter long before a commercially viable product is available; especially where advanced modelling, simulation and analysis (virtual prototyping) are involved. However, the limitations with CAD go far beyond a lack of expertise or resources – whether financial or temporal.

Physicality is a fundamental desire for humans; the deep-seated need to interact, shape, and impose order upon our surroundings. In order to fully interact with the design process a degree of physicality is necessary. The greater the physicality the greater the user engagement, their creative potential, and – importantly – the success of the project’s goals. However, traditional CAD systems are severely limited in these respects. They impose 2D (or 3D virtual) limits on a project which undermines the potential of a given idea or project – hence the increasing interest in 3D printing within prototyping.

The Role of PhysiCAD in Physicality

The purpose of PhysiCAD is to provide a platform which dramatically increases the level of physicality possible allowing the user to bypass the limitations noted above by not only simplifying – as well as increasing the speed and quality of – the design process but to also make CAD and other virtual prototyping tools more readily accessible. To achieve this the research is investigating a tangible interface for CAD, virtual prototyping and rapid prototyping.

An illustration of the PhysiCAD process is shown below:-

PhysiCAD Process
PhysiCAD Process

The PhysiCAD research programme consists of two interrelated research streams. The first addresses the technical and HCI challenges associated with the creation of real-time physical-to-digital model integration and user-in-the-loop digital-to-physical model integration. The second research stream concerns investigation of the affordances, complementarity (with Virtual Prototyping tools) and limitations of a Lego-inspired tangible interface for improving collaboration/co-creation, design performance and accessibility to virtual prototyping and rapid prototyping.

PhysiCAD has been given the go ahead and is due to start in November. Follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn to be notified of updates as the project progresses.

More information on PhysiCAD (renamed from LegoCAD which is referenced in the link) is available here

Watchers and Alerts: renewals, assets and maintenance defects

Software applications need to offer proactive management tools to enable users to cope with ever-increasing data volumes. Effective measures are needed to minimise the financial and non-financial costs of missing important events such as renewals or critical data changes.

Integrating proactive alert functionality, such as email, into an application is a key aspect of improving data management. These days this isn’t rocket science so we decided to make sure that our email integration provides more than a simple reminder service.

Maintenance triggers and alerts
Maintenance triggers and alerts

Key Deliverables

  • Monitor expiration dates – such as renewals for insurances, leases, certificates or vehicle taxes.
  • Provide alerts when other users create, update or relocate specific records to a new position. For example, when defects of a particular priority are created or assets of a particular type are installed.
  • User customisable trigger events including when alerts are triggered.
  • User customisable email content.
  • Enable records to be automatically updated by triggers, such as, setting a date or changing a record’s status.
  • Create chained events so that trigger events can in turn trigger later ones.

How does it work ?

  1. User definable query filters search for records of interest based on any attributes. For example, all records created after a particular date, or all records of a particular type, such as vehicle leases, due to expire in the next 60 days; amounts, priorities or any other attribute data whether it be for documents (contracts, leases, insurances, certificates etc), assets or maintenance defects.
  2. Geo-location can also be used in searches. This allows the search to be restricted to particular areas of a site or building allowing the software to let users know when data in specific areas triggers an event. For example, this allows the installation of new assets to be automatically tracked improving performance monitoring.
  3. Watchers are then created which automatically apply the filters. Watchers allow the user to:-
    • Define the events a user Is interested in tracking such as creating, updating and changing the location of a record or simply check for expiring dates and renewals.
    • Define the frequency with which the software should check for events.
    • Enable users to define their own customisable email messages adding to the information in the email the software generates.
    • Send the email to one or more recipients.
    • Watchers can undertake a number of optional tasks:-
    • Perform updates as an event is triggered. For example update a date field to show when a reminder was sent or automatically change the status of a record;
    • Create an event as a result of a previous event being triggered. This powerful process creates chains of events or actions;
    • Create activities – maintenance defects can automatically trigger an activities action for a contractor.

These features enable a comprehensive set of data events to be watched for and acted upon. Users responsible for their own site or facilities data are better empowered. Service providers managing their clients’ data, such as maintenance organisations, can automatically deliver added value communications enhancing their customer service.

Buried Services – making the invisible visible

Introduction

On the 2nd March the Institute of Civil Engineers (ICE) is hosting a seminar “Improving visibility and resilience of our Buried Service” because “there remains no central repository of data for buried services and underground apparatus, nor any consistent means of sharing it

The introduction of a data standard for underground assets is a positive initiative in facilitating information sharing. However a central repository isn’t the only option and this blog briefly considers a federated approach. A future blog will comment on a hybrid system.

Federated Systems

Centralised, national solutions have a chequered history of success whether for adoption in a single organisation or across multiple organisations each with their own priorities and pressures whether they are commercial, financial, legal or security related.

For example, many will remember the national CSRWR (Centralised Street and Road Works Register) which was due to be implemented across England and Wales before being cancelled. CSRWR was replaced by a standard communication protocol called ETON (Electronic Transfer of Notices).  ETON enables street works software developers, and organisations with their own systems, to exchange data directly among themselves – a federated environment.  Originally intended as a temporary solution it’s so successful it continues in use today removing the need for a central system.

Federated multi-academy maintenance data
Federated systems communicating over the web in an ETON style solution.

ETON is an example of coopetition competitors working together on a common cause while retaining the ability for them to innovate and compete for market share. This is good for industry and good for customers.

 

 

Another example of a federated approach is that used in Open BIM which uses IFC (Industry Foundation Classes) as an “open, neutral data format”. Open BIM:-

  • Supports standardisation
  • Maintains choice in the market for users as “small and large software vendors can participate and compete on system independent, ‘best of breed’ solutions.”
  • Doesn’t restrict competition nor innovation

These Open BIM principles could be the foundation for a federated systems approach to managing buried services and underground assets. As well as the physical exchange of data though we need to consider how some-one wanting information about a particular location would achieve that without a central system.

The answer is that data standards and protocols enable organisations to exchange information and make enquiries without needing to be initiated by, or routed through, a central system. This also has the advantage of retaining control of asset information within the federated systems (whether in-house or commercial products) which asset owners may prefer for commercial, security and other reasons. It also ensures there’s no single point of failure.

Finally, The ICE agenda also describes how a system could be – “Easily accessible and free, with charge-able data/services downstream”.  Our initial focus should be on the need for an open standard and not the commercial model for the implementation of a central system.  The private sector has led the way in the development of freemium services and some existing service providers already offer free at the point of access services in this sector.

We should keep the market open and let free market forces influence how suppliers offer their services. Customer choice should be maintained. I wouldn’t want to be at the behest of a single supplier determining chargeable services – would you?

Conclusion

A standard framework and protocol for data exchange will help make the invisible visible. The physical implementation of this standard is another consideration and other alternatives such as federated systems:-

  • Encourage a vibrant and disparate software and services industry;
  • Stimulate innovation
  • Preserve customer choice.

Positional Intelligence for Underground Assets

One of the challenges in subsurface utility engineering (SUE) is a lack of reliable positional intelligence about underground assets. Where are they, and once located, what information do we have about them. Better positional intelligence leads to safer and more effective working practises which in turn improve the bottom line.

“Daylighting”, defined in CI/ASCE 38-02, is the highest level of accuracy, providing information on the vertical and horizontal positions of underground utilities and attributes such as type, size, condition and material.

Tagging underground utilities
Tagging underground utilities

Daylighting is an apt term as it implies bringing greater clarity to underground asset data.  While we cannot physically raise assets above ground to bring them into the daylight we can take steps to ensure data is visible, accessible and current thus improving the positional intelligence available to us.

A life cycle approach to improving positional intelligence requires data from site plans and surveys (e.g. from CAD), on site (as built / as maintained) data, asset and maintenance management systems and Geographical Information Systems (GIS). A key dependency is asset location.

Locating Underground Assets

Missing or inaccurate location records result in issues such as increased service strikes; heightened risks to health and safety and increased works costs. The location of underground assets can be recorded using a single method or several to reflect the degree of accuracy required; level of risk; budget and time available. For example:-

  1. Passive Remote Frequency Identification (RFiD ) – with or without GPS
  2. GPS
  3. Geo-tagged photographs
  4. Engineering survey methods such as GPR.
  5. Textual descriptions including attributes facilitating integration into other systems e.g. datum and node points and section details along a pipe.

PAS 128 “Specification for underground utility detection verification and location” references the potential use of RFiD for tagging underground assets. RFiD tags can cost effectively and accurately mark potential areas of failure such as joints or valves. Data associated with a tagged asset can be stored in the cloud. This is vital to ensure data is accessible; there’s little point in burying a tag and its vital asset information.

Accessibility is enhanced in an intuitive, visual context. For example, AltoSUE™ uses a geospatial cloud based database and maps and / or site survey plans provide locational context. Overlaying data on site plans is invaluable as the map detail may not be accurate nor up to date for construction use.  An output from a PAS128 survey will be a CAD plan of the utility services. Making these plans available on mobile devices overlaid with tagged asset data as well as the ability to use background maps enhances on site working.

Tagged underground asset portal
Tagged underground asset portal

Integrating on site and cloud based technologies improves the efficiency of data recording and sharing.  Collect using tablets or smartphones; upload to the cloud and make it available to on and offsite users immediately or with minimal delay.

Data Convergence

The positional intelligence of underground assets is enhanced by enabling other records to be easily accessible on and offsite such as:

  • project information
  • engineering records
  • health and safety
  • risk assessments
  • 3D data

3D models add value to the repository of underground asset data. However, treat these with caution as they often represent ‘as designed’ states; not the ‘as built’ nor later ‘as maintained’ states. The industry is still working towards practical and cost-effective solutions to the challenge of using 3D models with a variety of innovations under development and coming to the market. Keeping asset life cycle data current has always been a challenge and will become more so as Building Information Modelling (BIM) becomes widely adopted.

Conclusion

Better positional intelligence is fundamental to improving SUE. A holistic approach to managing underground assets requires a number of discrete but integrated processes:-

  • Identification of underground asset location via RFiD, geo-tagging etc
  • Capturing data on site
  • Managing and facilitating access to it on and off site
  • Supplementing on site data with other records e.g. site survey plans as well as maps and engineering data to aid with the quick and safe relocation of underground assets
  • Integrating SUE data into corporate systems for asset and maintenance management purposes

Daylighting our SUE data provides a safer working environment for on site workers; less disruption and more efficient and profitable works activities.

The themes in this blog are explored in more detail in our white paper – “Daylighting Underground Assets’