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Engineers’ edge

Engineers’ edge

Being able to create a 3D model using digital photographs means that the gap between real infrastructure and the data in digital models used by engineers can be more effectively bridged.
He pointed to the church he probably attended every Sunday as a boy, growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania in the US. His fingers moved across the screen of his mobile phone, as he flicked over the live images one after the other, pointing out a few more landmarks from his home-town.

Greg Bentley, CEO, Bentley Systems, was demonstrating the power of reality capture – a software solution that produces high-resolution three dimensional (3D) models from simple photographs – a technology that has taken the world by storm in recent times.

The images Bentley was pulling up on his phone were 3D and life-like. What was remarkable about them was they were constructed from simple, single or two-dimensional photographs of his town that randomly existed on the internet. The reality modelling software, called ContextCapture, Bentley explained, allows for digital photography to capture and convert real situations into 3D models that hitherto used to be the domain of expensive laser scanning techniques. Moreover, the output from the solution is a 3D mesh that is measurable and interfaces with design and construction models, eliminating the need for point clouds that generate large, noisy data files and are difficult to navigate. Point clouds also require expensive equipment to create.

Visiting India at a time just after the Union Budget 2016-17 was announced in late February, Bentley is excited about the implications for reality capture technology in the country. India’s thrust on infrastructure projects, spelled out in the Budget, not only indicate business opportunities for technology companies but also provide a framework for creating smarter infrastructure in a rapidly developing country. Accelerating private participation û a major theme of the ruling government û seems to have aided the process manifold.

In fact, private investment has been known to spur the advancement and full utilisation of technology in all major infrastructure projects of the world. Bentley says this is because almost all private investment involves the entire life-cycle of the project. ‘Private participation goes beyond the design and build stages, into the operations and maintenance aspects. The single biggest opportunity for our technologies is to have the digital engineering models created by the engineers during the design phase become the digital DNA for smart operations of the infrastructure during operations and maintenance’, says Bentley. ‘That happens for sure if there is private investmentö, he adds.

What is encouraging is India is warming to the idea of public private partnership (PPP) for most of the mega infrastructure projects being planned. What is particularly exciting is the pervasive impact such PPP projects could have on improving a nation’s overall expectations about how infrastructure can be made smarter, utilised better and maintained well. Since the PPP model almost always takes the form of a concession involving a period of operations and maintenance, the opportunity exists to use technology to create smarter infra assets that can serve effectively for years to come.

For instance, the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC) did a pilot recently for the proposed Mumbai-Nagpur communication super express-way project. This was done using ContextCapture to show the benefits of continuous surveying and visualization for easy and effective monitoring of the project. Nagpur Metro Rail Corporation (NMRC) also carried out a reality modelling continuous survey of the proposed metro route, an ongoing project scheduled to begin operations in 2018.

While Bentley expects the thrust on technology to come from private sector participation, he was left pleasantly surprised as he arrived in Maharashtra to meet with the state’s Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. The CM informed Bentley he was already familiar with reality capture. Anil Diggikar, VC & MD, MSRDC, had made a presentation to Fadnavis earlier, showcasing the potential for the technology. In fact, MSRDC is among the first in India to complete pilots and proof of concept for the application for continuous surveying. The photographs MSRDC used were taken from drones and fed into ContextCapture. They were photos of existing roadways to show the pattern of wear of a stretch of pavement. MSRDC also used a government building as a test case for the software.

Bentley believes the catalyst that could spur the adoption of the software is the increasing use of drones in infrastructure projects, as already used by MSRDC. The recent moves by both the Indian Railways and the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) to use drones to monitor construction activity are just the sort of initiatives Bentley is hoping will take off. With drone-mounted cameras, all that is required is for these high quality aerial photographs from the drones combined with those from the ground to be dragged and dropped into ContextCapture which processes the images to generate the 3D models. The higher the number of photographs, the more detailed the 3D mesh and more accurate the model.

In addition, going beyond surveying and into inspection, actual observations of corrosion and degradation, for instance, can also be fed into structural analysis software tools to gain real-time information about safety levels of bridges and other structures. With the kinds of projects envisaged in core infrastructure – roads and highways, Railways, metro, ports and airports – technology will necessarily be a very relevant crux of the opportunity to make India smart through smarter infrastructure. For instance, making smarter maintenance decisions based on continuous surveying of assets instead of rule-of-thumb maintenance can help to lower overall operational costs. With earlier technologies, it was cost-ineffective to conduct repeated surveys. In the coming times, owners and operators of large infrastructure assets can probably ill afford to not keep surveying continuously in order to ensure the performance of their assets.

As savvy private investors increasingly look to participate in India’s infra projects and public officials begin to understand the potential for reality capture, infrastructure professionals will be provided the opportunity to instantly model the real world. They will be able to create real-time asset model information using just their phones and share reality meshes on desktops and mobile phones even for models of entire cities. They will be able to continuously survey road projects and rail routes without stopping existing traffic, all within a safe environment, and still have more than enough accurate information. They will be able to do all this much more quickly than with any other technology to benefit infrastructure design, construction and operations.

Invited to speak at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, during his time in India, Bentley exhorted students to choose the engineering profession over other career choices. He pointed out how new and sophisticated engineering technologies such as reality modelling is creating a new human experience for engineers as well as giving them the opportunity to create infrastructure blueprints for posterity. Indeed, using photography, itself an art form, to deliver high levels of engineering accuracy with the help of technology, question our notions of whether technology, too, may not be construed as art?

‘We are limited only by our imagination’, says Bentley.


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