Making the Most of Machine Control
Sometimes the things that intimidate us, or seem strange or extraordinary to us, may be the things that will help us to succeed. Take machine control technology; it is a mystery to many how it works but could be a lucrative area of the field to invest in. When I discuss machine control with engineers and surveyors, I am often surprised by the majority who have not heard of this technology. And when explained to them, some believe it is "Star Wars" technology and that they will never see it used in their lifetime. Many believe it is "too expensive" and will take years for it to become the standard for construction work.
In reality, however, this technology is not all that new and is in fact steadily progressing. Some reasons for its growth include the resultant reduction in the cost of construction work, and that it nearly eliminates the need for grade stakes, hubs and stringlines. Another reason many contractors and surveyors are taking notice of this technology is that it allows contractors to accomplish jobs on time while maintaining a higher level of accuracy. Owners/developers in turn like this because their projects get built on time and (hopefully) under budget. Overall, the market of machine control offers a wealth of opportunity for surveyors (and their clients) in which they can grow, thus increasing their revenue.
An Extension of Current PracticeEquipment automation technology through machine control configurations integrate heavy construction equipment such as bulldozers and excavators with GPS or laser-guided positioning systems. The systems indicate to the operator where he is on a site and indicate in what direction to go and how much material to dig or move (cut or fill). As with most technology, the benefits of machine control do not come without a cost. In a financial sense, there is an additional cost in the initial investment to the contactor to implement machine control, but the return on his investment can typically be made in the first job. In a strategic sense, the surveyor who relies on construction stakeout as a source of revenue could see this revenue diminish or disappear if he does not embrace the progression of this segment of the market. Surveying professionals can benefit from machine control technology by substituting their construction stakeout services with data prep services, or by adding these services. To do this, surveyors must become knowledgeable in the components of machine control technology-many of which are already familiar to them.
Components of Machine Control TechnologyThere are four main components that are required for machine control to be successful. The first component is the guidance system, which is installed on the desired machine. Typically graders, bulldozers and excavators are well-supported. Guidance systems can be GPS-configured; with GPS, rough grading can be accomplished. For fine or finished grades, a laser-guided system using a robotic total station is used. Some newer systems are combining these two technologies for even better accuracy.
The next component is the GPS network, a required component for the GPS-enabled systems. Since GPS satellites are available 24/7, work can be done at just about any time of the day or night. The signals are transmitted to the bulldozer, grader or any other piece of construction equipment that has been outfitted with a GPS receiver to provide the location of the equipment.
The last two components required for using a guidance system could be considered the two most important pieces. Site control and the 3D digital model of a site must be accurately established for everything to come together successfully. This is where surveying professionals may not only regain revenue lost from traditional staking jobs, but also potentially increase revenue and job opportunities. It is these measuring experts who can best provide this pertinent information to engineers and contractors.
Site ControlSite control provides an accurate network of known points and data that will be used throughout the project. Establishing a network of control points around a site will allow a contractor to set up his GPS base stations or robotic total stations in the best locations to move around the project site while minimizing the loss of signal and data. The site control will also provide a mechanism for the contractor to calibrate his equipment.
Turning this component of the machine control technology into a revenue stream should be fairly easy for surveyors as they already possess the knowledge and experience to perform site control. Utilizing control networks is common practice for most construction projects. The control network for a project using machine control technology can be set and maintained by traditional survey equipment or GPS equipment. The surveyor is the most fitting professional to provide this service, which is invaluable to contractors and subcontractors. By providing the valuable service of site control, the land surveyor becomes a trusted advisor to the owners, developers and contractors of the construction site.
"Site control experts" (or whatever surveyors choose to call themselves) can provide a level of quality and assurance that is urgently required for construction projects. Over- and under-excavation can be avoided with the accurate site control a surveyor can provide. And surveyors can take the lead and provide this invaluable service to any machine control project.
Data PrepMany engineers don't know machine control technology exists-let alone know of its value. As such, they have been slow to design their projects using a 3D model; many still produce paper plans. The value of a 3D model would not only help these professionals design a better and more accurate project, but they would be able to provide this data to the contractor who needs it in the field.
So what does the contractor need to do to turn his paper drawings into a 3D data model? Some request the data from the engineer or owner. However, this typically requires a lot of work to get the data prepared and a model created. Some will digitize the plans themselves to create the model. Some hire an engineer or other expert to re-create the model. All these scenarios can be acceptable but few have turned their actions into a solid business model.
A better solution is to call on a surveyor, and this is where I believe the surveying industry can make the biggest impact on the machine control industry. Surveyors or their technicians have been building terrain models for many years and are the experts at creating an accurate surface, whether it be existing or proposed. In addition to becoming the site control experts, surveyors can become the 3D data prep experts as well. As with the site control service, no additional equipment is required. Just about all surveying companies have software that produces surface models from survey field data. This same software can also be used to generate proposed surface models, which are then uploaded to a PC card and provided to the bulldozer or grader operator. It simply takes the surveyor to realize how to apply his expertise.
A drawing with contours alone does not mean there is a surface. The contours are used to convey what a site should look like and are typically created from the surface. To gain an understanding of how to create the model is to understand some basic components of a surface-something well known to surveyors. A surface (also known as a digital terrain model, or DTM, and as a Triangular Irregular Network, or TIN) is really just a series of triangles. Most civil engineering software applications build surfaces by interpolating between the three closest points. Even though contours can be a source of data used to build a surface, the most desirable source of data are points and breaklines. The points are used by the application to create the triangles and the breaklines are used to force the triangulation the correct way. Breaklines are typically lines that dictate a major change in grade, road crowns, curb lines and ditches, for example.
The time it takes to create a surface and prepare the data can vary greatly. It will depend on the amount of digital data that is available as well as the software application being used to create the model. Autodesk Civil 3D and Autodesk Land Desktop (San Rafael, Calif.), Bentley GEOPAK and Bentley InRoads (Exton, Pa.), Eagle Point (Dubuque, Iowa) and Trimble Terramodel (Sunnyvale, Calif.) are just a few examples of software applications that provide good tools to create the data and build surfaces. Most will provide an application that will upload the surface directly to the PC card that is used by the contractor on the heavy equipment. The same software applications can be used to turn paper plans into digital models.
An Opportunity for SurveyorsSite control is not new to the surveying industry. Turning this service into a revenue-generating mechanism can be beneficial for many forward-thinking surveying firms. Surveying firms that currently provide construction stakeout services to owners, developers and/or contractors can begin to cultivate those relationships into different or additional business by educating those clients on machine control technology. Also, the machine control industry stretches much farther than just the construction industry. The agricultural industry has also been using GPS technology in combination with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for many years. Firms that provide GIS services could expand their services into the machine control industry as well.
Overall, when it comes to the machine control industry there really isn't a secret ingredient for success. Firms seeking to provide services in this market need knowledge and understanding of each of the four technology components to make the whole process work. There is no one better suited to understand each component of this technology than the professional land surveyor.