Sieving the gigabytes: the big data challenge

13 June 2019
Image of the Forth road bridge
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Almost every business is now faced with a big data challenge. Namely, how to handle the vast quantity of information being harvested by modern technology: smartphones, AI, the Internet of Things. If a business is not already facing this challenge, they almost certainly will be soon. A recent survey of major businesses in the US found 92% are increasing their pace of investment in big data and AI with 48% saying their organization competes on data and analytics. Ignore big data, then, at your peril.

Better intelligence through big data

The term itself, however, is somewhat misleading. ‘Big data’ suggests impossibly large bundles of binary code that can only be housed in endless cloud systems. True, how to store all that information can present challenges, but really it’s what you do with it all that matters. That is the dilemma most businesses face; how you analyse data for key insights that lead to better strategic decisions.

Amazon, Facebook, Apple and the other tech giants have led the field in this area. As the internet and then adoption of smartphones has gathered pace, these companies have been swamped with data generated by the customers who embraced their products. They in turn have used that data to hone their business strategies. How can we learn more about our customers to deliver what we know - and we know in fine, granular detail - they want? Better intelligence should beget a better product.

The infrastructure context

Transfer this thinking now to the infrastructure sector and it’s a similar scenario. Technology such as remote sensors and IoT systems are now offering up swathes of data that can offer vital insights into bridges, roads and rail assets. But how do you read that data to identify existing patterns, emerging issues or even imminent threats? In theory, it should lead to asset managers being better informed and more alert to the needs of their assets.

An opportunity for Amey Consulting, experts in asset analytics and real time data science, to set a high watermark in this area - on one of the UK’s most vital pieces of infrastructure – was born out of misfortune. 

An opportunity for asset analytics

In December 2015, Amey engineers were forced to close the Forth Road Bridge to all traffic following the discovery of a critical failure in one of the eight “truss-end links” that support the deck at the main towers. Following the design and delivery of a unique repair scheme to resolve the problem by Amey engineers, the bridge was re-opened just 21 days after the initial closure.

The closure of the bridge resulted in huge disruption to Scotland’s road network. However, it did present an opportunity to install a structural health monitoring system that could gain valuable insights into the condition and behaviour of the bridge; insights that could inform and support management decisions, assist in targeting inspection and maintenance work, and help provide assurance to Transport Scotland that the FRB was safe to use and fit for purpose.

Sieving gigabytes of info

However, the task of deriving such insights from raw sensor data feeds requires cutting-edge data science techniques, particularly the need for Big Data management to analyse the gigabytes of information streaming off the bridge each day, and Machine Learning algorithms to interpret that data to identify anomalies and events worthy of attention.

Recognising this opportunity, Amey Consulting developed a service that has now grown into a fully-integrated smart management system for major bridges that could be deployed to digitally-enabled structures across the world. At its core, the service relies on an IoT remote monitoring platform, which gathers data from asset sensors, analyses them, and automatically identifies anomalous events. This is supported by a configurable asset management system, which is optimised for inspection and maintenance work, and includes a handheld tablet for on-site surveys.

Real-time asset data and maximum efficiency

The end result? Management decisions are now supported by up-to-the-minute asset data, and the process of manipulating and understanding that data is greatly simplified. It’s estimated that 248 engineering hours per year are now saved on report generation alone; equivalent to six weeks of engineering time.

Across the globe, there are numerous major cable-supported bridges that are aging and challenging their operators to find ways of demonstrating they are safe and fit for use. Some are beginning to investigate structural health monitoring and various forms of analytics; many have large quantities of data they are grappling with.

But none, bar the Forth Road Bridge, have a solution comparable to Amey Consulting’s integrated smart management platform, where a structural health monitoring system and asset condition data are brought together into a single decision support system that enables good asset management at key decision points.

An award-winning solution

We’re proud to say that Amey Consulting, alongside the Amey Forth Bridges Unit, was recently announced as winners in the Data Led Asset Performance category in the Association of Consultancy and Engineering’s Annual Awards. We feel that our solution is a good example of how big data - despite its daunting connotations of vastness and complexity – can actually, when put in the right hands, lead to simplification: of processes, of systems or just of the problem itself, in our minds.  

As the big data industry continues to mushroom globally, it bears thought that big data should never be allowed to become a big headache; it should be viewed as an opportunity, to develop effective solutions that help asset owners, businesses or any other organisation reach maximum efficiency. 

To find out more about our Strategic Consulting team click here

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