Bridging the digital technology divide

20 April 2018
Image of the Forth road bridge
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The whole world of infrastructure seems to be talking about smart technology right now. But just how many engineering professionals really understand what it is and why it is so important to the future of our industry?

Without question the evolving disciplines of data gathering, analytics, machine learning and visualisation are set to transform the entire market as a new generation of tools, skills and systems become more automated and integrated into the mainstream.

The future really is smart. Yet it is clear that the traditional civil engineering profession remains slow to embrace this opportunity and sits way behind other sectors.

A new world of smarter bridge engineering

On the Forth crossings, I am pleased to say that we have grasped this opportunity.  We have put in place and are continually developing new data driven, smart, integrated and automated solutions.   And with support from our forward-thinking client Transport Scotland, we are leading a new world of bridge engineering, operations and maintenance on both the Forth Road Bridge and the new Queensferry Crossing.

On each structure, real time sensors are the norm, monitoring traffic loads, wind, temperatures, stresses, strains and movement on every critical part of the structures.  Gigabytes of data are literally pouring off the bridges every day, as thousands of cars, buses and HGVs travel unhindered along these vital transport arteries, through some of the UK’s harshest weather conditions.  

Detailed technical information on each element of the structures is held by an advanced cloud-based database developed in-house by Amey. This is automatically updated and reports on the condition of all bridge elements, allowing deterioration modelling to optimise our repair and maintenance activity. A mobile app means inspection teams now interact with the data and update it in real time. 

Cutting edge technology.  Practical thinking.

But being smart is not simply about the size of our database. Capturing the data is only a starting point – merely a means to identify the haystack in which to search for needles. Critically, we have developed the smart part – the technology and thinking that allows this raw, dumb data to be turned into useful, actionable information and the automation that allows the structure to monitor and diagnose itself.

The sudden closure of the Forth Road Bridge in December 2015 following discovery of a fractured critical truss-end link, certainly refocused minds. Despite the Scottish Parliament’s official inquiry report concluding that the failure was both “unforeseen and unforeseeable”, the potential for major disaster and the £1M a day cost of closure made it certainly something to be avoided in future.

Leading the way towards predicting the future

In effect, what we are now trying to do at Forth is understand what is going to happen before it happens, and I believe that we are way ahead of anyone else in this field.  Our data analytics and machine learning package, developed by our in-house data, technology and advisory specialistswith our own Phd level engineers at the Forth Bridges, enables us to truly engage with the structures’ performance.  Our next step is to bring this process to life by integrating the data into real time and to make this more interactive we are trialling the use of virtual and mixed reality visualisation in real time.

The next generation of engineer

It has been no easy task to get to where we are today. It has required a team and a set of skills that sit outside those of the typical engineer. Fortunately at Amey Consulting our traditional engineers work alongside  our rapidly expanding number of technology and data experts who, to be frank, are not shackled by the traditional way of managing infrastructure and are excited by change.

Transport Scotland also understands and is excited by the need for change – perhaps having suffered the public backlash from the recent closure. As such, when we suggested this new approach, they were quick to support and encourage our ideas and have been so impressed that they have asked us to deploy our systems and database on other major bridges on the network.

Spending smart

While there is no question that the decision-making processes that we now have in place enable us to optimise our maintenance investment, the driver for our move to smart technology goes wider and deeper. Instead, our joint goal is to create resilience and predictability. We use data analytics to minimise the impact of required interventions, and our real time monitoring drives confidence that we are investing in the right maintenance for the long-term health of the bridges.

Intelligent innovations rooted in practical thinking

Of course, data based automated integrated systems are never a substitute for good, solid engineering knowledge. Even the best data analytics and trend prediction does not make your structural engineering and maintenance issues disappear. For that we still need eyes, ears and feet over the structure on a regular basis.

But make no mistake, the use of digital technology on the Forth Road Bridge and Queensferry Crossing has opened up a new world of possibilities in terms of how you apply that engineering expertise.

Identifying historical performance trends helps us to understand what is happening to the structure. Real time sensors enable us to highlight elements about to fail, while our constantly updated databases can be accessed instantly so that engineers can make comparison to what they see in the field.

Positive change

Yet for all these benefits, there is certainly still a fear of change in the profession and across many infrastructure clients. There shouldn’t be; but I realise it takes a huge effort to break free from traditional approaches.

While, of course, the cost of this technology means it has to be carefully thought through, I believe that an appropriate amount of tech can be put onto even the smallest of structures. Today at Amey Consulting we are working with several universities on research projects which should accelerate adoption of the tools and ensure that unexpected structural failures are a thing of the past.

But the benefits of smart technology go beyond preventing failure. In reality, smart technology means infrastructure owners and operators can make better, more informed choices. By interacting with their assets in an automated way, they can make decisions based not just on calculation and analysis but with the benefit of real live data.

So, when the First Minister of Scotland asked us if it was safe to reopen the road bridge in December 2015, our answer, based on our smart technology and real time monitoring, was a resounding and confident yes. That’s the kind of confidence that the next generation of civil engineering professionals really cannot be without.

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