The world is awash in aging infrastructure. Too often, we see images of collapsed bridges, buildings or other failed structures. Even when these catastrophes don’t result in loss of human life, they inflict enormous costs and disruption to transportation and business. A 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis killed 13 people and resulted in unplanned repair costs of more than $230 million. The collapse also devastated the regional economy. State officials estimated that transportation delays and re-routing alone had a negative impact of $60 million on Minnesota’s business community.

In today’s economy, the task to maintain outdated, often-obsolete infrastructure consumes a disproportionate share of funds. Certainly, it’s not possible to replace everything at once, so owners of public and private infrastructure must make difficult decisions about their facilities. To set priorities for replacing and maintaining infrastructure, these agencies must have reliable and actionable information.

Providing that information is the role of structural monitoring: to capture, analyze and report on the condition and behavior of structures. In the process, it can lower the risk of unexpected failures and shutdowns. For geospatial professionals such as surveyors or engineers, monitoring represents an important—and profitable—source of business. 

Monitoring—the act of repeated measurement over time—is already a familiar activity to many professionals. Monitoring takes place over a number of disciplines. For example, structural engineers may want to understand the behavior of a bridge and how it reacts to loading from wind, traffic or water flows. Mining engineers and geologists use monitoring to understand the motion of cut slopes and slide areas. Highways and railroads need to track the status of an array of manmade structures as well as the stability of slopes and roadbeds. On construction sites, monitoring tracks the behavior of structures while they are built and watches for any effects that the construction might have on nearby objects and features.

Safety First. And Second. And Third.

While it’s easy to focus on the economic benefits, we must remember that the primary goal of structural monitoring is safety. Whether in industrial settings, construction sites or transportation corridors, an organization’s highest priority is protecting human life. In many settings, owners and operators utilize monitoring as part of the effort to provide safe conditions.

At Round Mountain Gold Mine in Nevada, chief surveyor Richard Musselman thinks about safety every day. Musselman’s team uses GNSS and optical measurements to monitor the steep slopes of the mine’s massive pit. In addition to watching for unexpected movement, the automated system provides data that mine engineers and geologists use for planning the activities and movements of mining equipment. According to Round Mountain geologist John Keefner, the mine’s steep walls and location on a geologic fault make monitoring a requirement. “There’s always something moving somewhere,” Keefner said. Thanks to the monitoring system, the mine has never needed to do a rapid evacuation, and has not lost any equipment due to unexpected movements or slides on the mine walls. Round Mountain is monitoring a slowly developing fault in the pit. Over the long term, it will affect the south access ramp into the pit: the team is using monitoring data to plan equipment movement and redesign the area’s next highwall. For Musselman, the bottom line is safety. “That’s what it’s really about. I can actually sleep better at night knowing that we are providing a safe place for our people to work.”

The experience at Round Mountain is not unique. Around the world, the primary purpose of structural monitoring systems is protection of human life.

Core Technologies Deliver Critical Functions

The fundamentals of structural monitoring have been in place for decades. Many well-known structures contain embedded sensors to detect movement or other changes. Dams, skyscrapers and bridges may contain embedded strain gauges, accelerometers or other systems to detect motion or displacement. Geospatial technology adds an important capability to these structural monitoring technologies. While some sensors detect stress or change in a single dimension, geospatial monitoring captures changes in three dimensions.

Geospatial instruments and methods have made great strides in the past decade. On the site, today’s key technologies include robotic total stations, high-speed GNSS receivers, high-dynamic range accelerometers and high-speed data logging. These systems provide precise, high-volume data acquisition at a cost per point far lower than earlier methods.

Even greater advances have occurred in the software that connects and manages the sensors and their data. Using a variety of communications and cloud-based operations, monitoring software has moved far beyond the basic functions of collecting and storing data. Today’s software is the catalyst for putting monitoring data to work. In addition to managing multiple types of sensors and instruments, the monitoring desktop provides analysis and visualization of field data for stakeholders. The software also utilizes the data to provide alarms and sophisticated reporting on a structure’s condition and behavior.

Building New Business—The Value of Monitoring

Structural monitoring uses a geospatial professional’s core skills of measurement and data management. It is an excellent way to leverage existing skills to develop new services and clients. As a result, monitoring offers ample opportunities for surveyors and other geospatial professionals to expand their business.

The strong leverage opportunity is only part of the attraction. Because many clients already understand the value of monitoring and use it in some form, monitoring can also be an “easy sell.” By adding monitoring to a portfolio of services, you can approach new or existing clients with a strong value proposition. Let’s look at a few examples of the benefits of monitoring:

-Monitoring can be done with remarkable cost efficiency and flexibility. Some structures can successfully be monitored at long intervals of weeks or months. This approach, known as “campaign monitoring,” entails periodic visits to a site to collect monitoring data. It is a cost-effective way to monitor structures that change slowly. Campaign monitoring is common at remote locations, where monitoring visits might occur only once or twice per year.  

In addition to the value that campaign monitoring gives your customers, it is an excellent way to get into the monitoring business. You can use your organization’s existing surveying instruments such as total stations, GNSS and levels to conduct monitoring campaigns and blend monitoring visits into normal work schedules.

-Monitoring can be tailored to provide rapid measurement and reporting. Some monitoring needs can benefit from collecting data more frequently than is practical with campaign monitoring. This “temporally dense” data comes from more frequent campaign visits, or from automated systems that can gather data in real time without human interaction. These dense datasets provide a more continuous picture of the behavior of a structure or landform. When compared to the periodic snapshots supplied by campaign monitoring, the dense data help engineers develop deeper understanding on how a structure is performing.

There are two more ways in which automated systems deliver economic benefits. First, the cost per measurement is very low compared to human operators. By converting from campaign monitoring, it’s possible to reduce labor costs while increasing data density. In one example, a company increased data collection from two measurements per month to 24 measurements per day. Second, because they operate in real time, automated systems can issue alerts whenever a defined condition is met or exceeded. If something moves, you’ll know about it right away.

-Monitoring plays a key role in asset management. Structural monitoring can provide data on a structure’s condition and behavior under loads. This information lets engineers manage lifecycle activities more efficiently. In one instance, a bridge in Europe nearing the end of its expected life was scheduled for replacement. Data from a monitoring system revealed that the bridge was still in good condition. This allowed engineers to add more than a decade to its expected life and allocate funds to other, more urgent maintenance needs.

Monitoring can become part of an automated asset management system. By using scalable systems, a single person can monitor multiple projects and sites, controlling hundreds of sensors from a single desktop computer.

Monitoring may be the most important or valuable service you can provide. It lets your clients maximize the potential of their organizations by removing unexpected failures. By providing monitoring services, you act as a watchdog on the lookout for dangerous or disruptive events. Your work helps your clients manage risk and make their sites a safer place for the people who work there.

It all adds up to a textbook case for leverage: Monitoring lets geospatial professionals offer high-value services in projects and applications with which they are already familiar. As you look at your clients and their businesses, it’s likely you will find a number of applications for monitoring. Use your skills and relationships to take the first step into an important and profitable new business.