GEO Business 2016 - Something for Everyone - 05/07/2016


GeoBusiness returned to the Islington Business Design Centre for its third year with a larger exhibition, more visitors and, if anything, an even buzzier atmosphere. GW’s team at the event report.

The industry’s biggest players seemed to have bigger stands and there were more new exhibitors. Perhaps more importantly, the event is attracting interest from surveyors’ clients as well as surveyors. No longer are we talking to ourselves!

The first session of the first day started with inspiration in spades. Tom Cheesewright, an ‘Applied Futurist’ gave the audience his vision of the geospatial future. The future, according to Cheesewright, is a mix of human and machine, where the machine does more thinking than it does today. It was interesting, but perhaps somehow obvious and perhaps a little spooky, that he predicts that machines will have the same sense organs as humans. They will be able to see and hear and react according to their senses as well as analyse what they see to determine what to do next. The future, he says, is a synthesis of the physical and digital organic living built environment which can develop and evolve, populated by autonomous organisms... and ‘us’. Unfortunately nearly every ‘autonomous organism’ in sci-fi is of the competitive rather than the collaborative kind. Clearly they will need to get on board with BIM!

Setting aside concerns about world peace, this brave new world is good news for ‘geospatial’, because, as we know, everything happens somewhere, so the autonomous organisms... and us, will need map data to find our way around.

Clumsy cars, toothbrushes and hats

The euphoria brought by this thought was however short-lived, as Ed Parsons, from Google, said that navigating is actually the easy bit. The bigger concern for the Google car is bumping into objects that have not been mapped, such as other road users. He introduced us to the ‘toothbrush test’. The toothbrush is a necessary part of our lives and we buy one regularly. The aim of Google is to deliver products that pass the toothbrush test. He suggested that Google Maps, with a billion users has passed the test. Arguably, Google Glasses did not pass but Cheesewright suggested that augmented reality is yet to have its day, so perhaps the glasses will eventually pass the ‘old toothbrush test’.

Parsons structured his talk around hats. We started off with a construction hard hat – no stereotyping there then. This is worn by ‘traditional’ geospatial people with a reverence for precision and care, and a reputation (deserved or otherwise) for protectionism. Then along comes the ‘hipster hat’, worn by people who hide complexity behind APIs and make our precious geospatial data available to everyone. They give access, just as Uber gives access to taxis, without owning any vehicles and without the user having to master the intricacies of GIS.

Clever tractors

Professor Gianvito Lanzolla from the Cass Business School asked ‘what triggers digital transformation’? His answer was converging technologies, like the connected tractor with technology to ensure that it delivers fertiliser in the right quantity to the right part of fields, so it is using GNSS, remote sensing and communications. Similarly, Rolls Royce monitors its aero engines throughout their working life to target maintenance.

Addressing the world

Gary Gale from what3words said that maps on their own are not enough and that the distribution of geospatial data is not uniform around the globe: London is bathed in it whilst in other places it is sparse. He claimed that 75% of the world has inadequate, poor or no addressing system. Even in Britain he was able to quote negative house numbers, the same house number and street name four miles apart amongst a dozen similar examples. His company’s solution is to divide the world into three metre tiles and assign three words to each tile. Three words are easier to communicate than latitude and longitude.

Techonology and society

Parsons, Lanzolla and Gale then joined chairman Andy Coote on stage for a panel discussion on the subject “Emerging technology and applications – how to examine the societal benefits of what we do”. Like the opening pages of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, discussion centred around opposites and contradictions: freedom v regulation, privacy v accessibility, society v technology.

Regulation, the panel pleaded should be informed and should not stifle. Privacy is viewed differently by different cultures and indeed age groups, with younger people more willing to be open. The problem is not so much the handing over the data as ensuring that it is used for the purpose it was intended and nothing else. Rigor and freedom were also debated, with a consensus that it is the product that is important and should be subject to appropriate standards and regulation, not processes and certainly not process for process sake. Other discussion points concerned the ‘democratisation’ of data and the pros and cons of large monopolies against SMEs. In Silicon Valley monopolies are seen as ‘good’ because they are able to sustain innovation, whilst in Europe we put greater value on the competitiveness generated by SMEs. But are we happy, said Lanzalla, to see the monopolies take all, whilst everyone else fights over the scraps?

Survey4BIM

There were associated meetings at GeoBusiness, one of which was a call to action from Survey4BIM. A capacity audience on both days heard a presentation on the aims of the group and its progress so far, together with a panel discussion. Survey4BIM was formed to ensure that surveying does not get bypassed by the BIM revolution. It is one of 37 BIM4 committees in the UK. The group has a webpage: www.bimtaskgroup.org/survey4bim/. Under the resources tab there are white papers on the big 5 challenges that the committee has identified. They are looking for as much participation as possible, which Barry Gleeson illustrated with the help of a TED talk: www.ted.com/talks/derek_sivers_how_ to_start_a_movement?language=en. This is well worth watching and fun to boot. BIM is still something of an enigma for many, including this writer. It is very difficult to translate from high-level concept to footwear on the ground. Not least because we have all been following its concepts for years. For surveyors the single point of truth is obvious; collaboration is obvious; and standardisation of data is obvious. But should BIM be a standard procedure? It feels like this is what it has to be, but to what extent is this a good thing?

The Infrastructure debate

The second day of the conference heard from a panel of speakers, moderated by former New Civil Engineer editor Anthony Oliver, around the topic of infrastructure and how the geospatial sector should embrace the opportunities presented by the government’s recent commitment to invest in large infrastructure projects. These were exciting times, thought Oliver, with the UK government committed to a ‘pipeline of projects’ at a time when the focus had shifted from hardware to customers.

The panel discussion was preceded by RICS president-elect Amanda Clack, who has the challenging task of preparing two speeches for her investment day on 27 June as president: one if the UK decides to leave the EU and one for remain.

Standards and professionalism

Clack, who confesses to being a ‘techno geek’ thought geospatial data was incredibly exciting. She reviewed the future possibilities and implications for land and the built environment at a time when the pace of change was increasing, but we were still not learning lessons from the past: standards and professionalism are key, like the RICS’s International Land Measurement Standard, now rapidly being adopted internationally. She urged the audience to read a document recently published by the RICS entitled “Changing World – let’s be ready”: visit www.rics.org/uk/knowledge/research/ insights/futuresour-changing-world/.

According to Clack, major projects in the UK continue to go over budget by 75% although it’s even worse in the US where only 13% are reported to stay within budget. She believes that we are reaching a tipping point in the use of technology. The GEO Business exhibition was a reflection of the era of mass geospatial data.

Think global

Clack painted a picture of a world where we will use space differently: where urbanisation is the biggest challenge. To illustrate the scale of the problem she cited China, where there will be 13 megacities of over ten million people by 2030. Investment will be global and to achieve the investment there will have to be confidence; and that means minimising uncertainty. Geospatial information will be crucial for evaluating and minimising risk at all scales of development from individual buildings up to smart cities.

She turned to the role of modern surveyors. Clack is a QS, now a partner and head of infrastructure advisory at Ernst & Young. Technology, she argues, must underpin the next generation of surveyors to unlock innovation and influence thinking. ‘My focus is on cities and infrastructure’, citing BIM and GIS as key technologies that can deliver 20% savings over the whole life of a project. However, she conceded that the cost of BIM is at the front end where the capital spend occurs, which makes it difficult to persuade clients to invest. Nevertheless ‘BIM can bind professionals together’.

Is BIM transforming projects?

Following Clack’s address there was a panel discussion around the question: “How will the geospatial sector embrace the opportunity presented by the UK’s commitment to invest in large infrastructure projects?” She was joined by Alex Bywaters from Highways England, Peter Vale from Thames Tideway and Jon Kerbey from HS2 to debate the question, ably and incisively facilitated by Oliver who constantly challenged speakers, including those from the floor.

He began by asking them if Level 2 BIM really would transform projects. Bywaters bears the title Head of Business Improvement, Smart Motorways Programme at Highways England, a new government owned company set up to manage England’s core road network. ‘We have aspirations to be an intelligent client’ was his view. Vale suggested that BIM is actually a ‘brand’ – a view that will make a lot of sense to those of us who struggle to see the novelty in it.

Kerbey said that HS2 had been designed from the passenger experience backwards. This reflected a presentation from hospital design & build company Circle at a BIM conference, where the company made a point of gaining input from medical staff when designing new hospitals. Consultation is the key to unity, but one wonders if HS2 forgot to involve those who will run the railway and Circle forgot the patients!

Future surveyors

Asked about the future for the modern professional surveyor, Bywaters recounted standing on a hill in Jubail forty years ago with his survey instruments. He reckons that data gathering is now completely different and that the challenge is data management. Clack thought that BIM and data management ‘should be at the heart of our day jobs’ and that the RICS reflected this by offering a new pathway to membership called ‘data analytics’. She also mentioned that there is an annual turnover in the built environment sector of 400,000 people. Clearly more needs to be done about retention and making career paths more attractive.

Value of survey

Speaking from the audience, former Geomatics Professional Group Chair Chris Preston, who works for Network Rail, made the point that many in our industry understand cost but not value. He thought there was a ‘lack of an informed client base’. Responding, Clack explained that RICS had developed a series of informed client guidance notes and was running a series of seminars.

It’s about people

Another member of the audience, Steven Eglinton of the AGI, argued that BIM was about ‘people change’. Oliver challenged that surely it was about ‘whole life value’ and only by focusing on this do we get the benefits. Eglinton argued that one of the problems in gaining these benefits was that of ‘clunky topologies and the lack of common semantics. ‘So the government needs to bang heads together but how can they do this in the private sector?’ Oliver asked Peter Vale, who responded that they were members of various industry panels aimed developing and sharing practice in this area.

One speaker from the floor asked whether the client representatives on the panel employ any chartered land surveyors on their projects. Vale said that Tideway leaves ‘all that to the supply chain’. Bywaters didn’t, but thought they should and Kerbey gave a resounding ‘yes’.

What about maintenance

Another audience speaker wondered if the 20% claimed savings from BIM could all be lost through poor maintenance during a project’s lifecycle. It seemed to him that there was always excitement (and votes) from government around new projects but never the money for local government for paint and maintenance. Amanda Clack said the use of apps in citizen hands can force local councils to act on maintenance.

Modelling, remote building and monitoring

The second conference session of the day concerned geo-infrastructure. Ioannis Brilakis, director of the Construction Information Technology Laboratory at Cambridge University, described work on point cloud to vector modelling and basic object recognition. The method is to recognise horizontal and vertical objects and then deduce whether they are, for example, a bridge deck or a pier. One could be forgiven for thinking that this research had already been done by numerous other innovators. The technique has been adapted for modelling buildings whilst MEP is the next challenge. Brilakis believes that augmented reality will be in use in buildings within four to five years and that ‘live BIM’ will be with us within twenty years.

Mark Lawton from Skanska foresees the day when machine-controlled plant can be operated from anywhere. So the operative can sit in an office and drive the plant on one or more sites around the world from air-conditioned comfort. He suggested that this would be the preserve of the Xbox generation.

Paul Clarke and Simon Maddison from consultant AECOM and Senceive respectively spoke on monitoring Brunel’s Box tunnel on the Great Western Railway as it carves through the Cotswolds between Chippenham and Bath. The tunnel is 3km long, 175 years old and passes through varied geology. It also passes close to numerous other tunnels. The engineering objective was to lower the track by 0.3m to provide sufficient clearance to electrify the line. AECOM modelled the tunnel to predict likely movement and Senceive installed 250 high precision bi-axial tilt sensors on short beams in densities and locations so as to detect the predicted movement. During a two-week period before construction work commenced they were able to record changes to the tunnel caused by diurnal effects and then monitor it during construction. Data was transmitted out of the tunnel via a mobile comms link – yes, there was a signal inside the tunnel!

Meanwhile in the exhibition...

Outside the conference and workshop sessions there was plenty of activity on the exhibition floor. Indeed, the level of interest even held up well on Day 2, which bodes well for the future.

Scanning systems on trolleys have been around for a few years, but one wondered why they should be attractive when their accuracy is very similar to the ZEB-Revo – which can negotiate stairs. This year Trimble was exhibiting its TIMMS system and a company new to GeoBusiness, Surphaser, exhibited its 105HSX scanner which, when mounted on a trolley with an IMU would, the supplier claimed, deliver accuracies of an order of magnitude better than competitors when operating over closed routes. Faro has developed something similar by mounting a second scanner under its Faro Focus and putting the whole system on a trolley. The lower scanner scans ahead over a 45 degree arc and uses this data to determine the movement of the scanner and thereby create a single point cloud covering the whole trajectory.

Backpacks

3D Laser Mapping has developed a backpack LiDAR system called the Robin to compete with Leica’s Backpack and the ZEB Revo. The system has two GNSS antennas and an IMU for outdoor use, and will be equipped to process using SLAM for indoor use. Heading back to Trimble, I saw a demonstration of their RealWorks software with some impressive surface and edge detection. Pointfuse were demonstrating software that can convert point clouds to vector models automatically as was Clearedge.

UAVs

There were plenty of UAVs in evidence. French company Delair-tech made their first appearance at GeoBusiness with two fixed-wing aircraft able to carry LiDAR and hyperspectral sensors or cameras, as well as GNSS and inertial sensors to observe the aircraft trajectory. Topcon’s Falcon 8 is a multicoptor UAV which is offered with a thermal infrared camera.

Self-learning GNSS

Leica had recently launched the GS16 GNSS receiver using the same concept as that in its self-learning total station, so it can deselect satellites with poor signals on-the-fly. There is also a new series of digital levels, and GeoMOS can now accept any data, including scans from the MS60.

Viewing GeoBusiness a few days after the event, it was certainly a success for all concerned, as the exhibition enlarges and Diversified Communications discovers what does and what does not work. For this reviewer the highlight was the panel discussion on the first day. The exhibition had a friendly atmosphere and nothing seemed to be missing: whoever you needed to see was there.

This article was published in Geomatics World July/August 2016

Last updated: 24/10/2017