Old is the new: remote infrastructure sensing technology

Matthew Watt, Project Manager, Asset Engineering
17 July 2018
Image of a rail track in rural Scotland.
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Imagine being asked to measure how much a railway bridge moves whilst a train passes over at 125mph. Given access to a few modern movement gauges, you might think that you could give it a good go. But now imagine being asked to calculate a movement value every 50th of a second, to an accuracy of a 10th of a millimetre, in over 50 locations simultaneously. Suddenly the challenge changes. This is not a theoretical example. It is the description of the capability offered by Amey’s Asset Management team to Network Rail, all from a position of safety. This is the capability of Amey’s sophisticated video gauge technology system, a non-contact, precision-measurement device, which captures displacement, strain, extension and rotation on live structures.

The use of such remote monitoring technology is becoming increasingly critical to the effective and efficient management of our infrastructure assets. Amey’s asset management teams understand the potential power of this new way of working and our recent investment in both skills and technology is designed to exploit these opportunities to the benefit of our clients.

A new world of digitally enhanced technology

Whether via sophisticated structural monitoring on the railways or through the use of new drone technology to manage the highways network, it is clear to us that a new world of digitally enhanced opportunity is emerging alongside our traditional, practical, tried and tested approaches.

Embracing these new technologies is vital, not least as our assets get older and the demand for their use increases. This diverging dilemma means we have less time to measure condition, but ironically more reason to do so. And only by opening our thinking and processes to embrace the range of new hardware and software solutions that are becoming available, can we ultimately provide better, more customer-focused solutions to our clients’ problems.

Drones are a valuable resource

Take drones as another example. To Amey they are simply a resource. A resource that enables people to be out of harm’s way while assets are inspected; a resource that doesn’t argue; that obeys infinite commands; and that can calculate decisions for itself in real time.

To our client Highways England, drones are an opportunity to respond to incidents on the infrastructure faster, ensuring that the travelling public are protected as best as possible. They enable real-time, automated assistance when making complex decisions affecting the network management in the heat of the moment – an invaluable resource with the potential to transform the management and operation of our road network.

But - and there is inevitably a but – using technology as the basis for making crucial decisions that can impact the structural integrity of civil assets, the performance of safety-critical components or the response to emergency incidents, is something that cannot be taken lightly. Not least in an industry governed, for many very good reasons, by a plethora of standards to describe the way things must be done.

Any move beyond these norms must be made with our eyes wide open to the possibility of unintended consequences of technology falling short of the traditional, tried and tested approaches.

Technology meeting the needs of engineers

Amey’s Asset Management team is on top of this challenge. Its “Rich Asset Data Capture” capability underpins the design and management of structural monitoring systems, enabling better decisions on asset risk management, asset performance and asset value to be made consistently and with full view of the consequences.

In short, they focus on how to converge the capability of a rapidly expanding global market of innovative technology, with the interests of traditional professional engineers and their need to manage risk and comply with regulations.

For example, every civil asset owned by Network Rail is subject to a visual inspection at least every year, and a more detailed inspection every few years. Structures that carry a live load have rigorous, assessment calculations applied which result in a “pass/fail” score, based on structure geometry, condition and loading properties.

Regardless of how we approach this challenge, the same simple, yet complex question always needs to be answered: “Is the structure safe to use?”.

However, used properly, technology can help tackle this complex question, not just providing quicker, more cost effective answers, but actually reshaping the way that we are able to respond to what we find on the ground.

Movement detected on a multi-span viaduct

For example, during a routine annual inspection, Amey’s structural inspector reported seeing movement of a multi-span viaduct during the passage of a high-speed train. Network Rail reacted with a temporary speed restriction as a precautionary measure, while deploying emergency teams to quantify the defect and understand the impact that this movement had on the safety of passing trains.

Clearly protecting the public is a critical step that technology alone cannot secure – practical precautionary measures will always be an important part of our response to structural anomalies. But minimising impact on the timetable caused by a speed restriction is also vital to the customers’ rail service. Amey’s suggestion was to use their Video Gauge monitoring system to measure vertical and horizontal movement during the passage of trains, thus supporting the critical decision-making process and ultimately leading to the viaduct’s safe return to full use.  

Similarly on the highways we see the use of drone technology as a critical addition, rather than a replacement, for existing processes and controls that underpin public service and safety.

When an incident occurs on a motorway or main trunk road, shear weight of stationary vehicles mean it’s usually a matter of minutes before traffic grinds to a halt. Various stretches of the network have been upgraded as “Smart Motorways” with automated camera and sign systems used to identify incidents, close lanes or implement variable speed limits. These innovations control the traffic flow, help to prevent secondary incidents and enable faster deployment of emergency services.

However, knowing what and who to deploy very much depends on how much information you have from the scene. The ability to instantly deploy a drone to the scene to capture and stream live pictures of the incident from any angle adds significantly to images from static road side cameras and transforms the vital decision-making process.

Applying remote technology to the highways network

Working with Highways England, ameyVTOL is paving the way for this to become the norm. To instantly capture information such as how many cars have been involved, whether there has been any fuel spillage, the number of people at the scene, the 3D geometry of the scene, the length of the traffic jam and the condition of the diversion route - all without human intervention.

The potential impact of technology across the world of asset management is nothing short of mind-blowing. Remote monitoring systems, whether fixed or mobile, will inform us not only of things that are not performing as planned, but they will also have the ability to tell us what has already been done about it.

Without question technology and autonomous devices will be central to the future of asset management. But it cannot transform the sector alone. It is a vital tool that must supplement and enhance traditional, tried and tested approaches to enable the engineering profession to deliver safer, more efficient and more capable infrastructure assets to the benefit of customers.


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