Anyone who has ever been to Florence can appreciate the superhuman efforts of one the first civil engineers, Filippo Brunelleschi, who spent nearly three decades (1420-46) constructing the dome on top of Santa Maria del Fiore. Trained as a goldsmith, but skilled in mathematics and driven by fierce ambition, Brunelleschi figured out how to use scaffolding in such a way that the dome could support its own weight, tens of thousands of tons, without flying buttresses (which the city fathers wouldn’t permit). And he invented a hoist to haul up all 4 million bricks 180 feet, setting each one into an octagonal structure 375 feet tall. Brunelleschi did it all—bidding, designing, engineering and overseeing construction.
Today’s engineers need to be something akin to Renaissance men and women, too. They must be skilled in surveying, structural design, various construction materials, geology, soil, water, vegetation, and, of course, math and physics. Thanks to technologies varying from sonar to different forms of solid and computer modeling, as well as stress-resistant forms of steel and concrete, the work of engineering involves far less guesswork than it did in 15th-century Italy.
One tool in particular makes their jobs easier than ever: high-resolution aerial imagery.
Site awareness is where it all begins. You have to know the place and its environs intimately before you take the first step in planning or building anything—a bridge, a building, a road or highway, a canal, other infrastructure, or a commercial or residential development. Satellite photos may not give you enough detail of the area. Drone videos provide sharp pictures, but might not be able to span a large enough area.
High-resolution aerial imagery can provide the benefits of both traditional visuals: clarity (drone) and breadth (satellite). It offers perspectives from straight down, along with panoramic and oblique views, allowing seamless navigation from one location to another. And with the ability to measure buildings, trees and utility wires, among so many other things, engineers can analyze a location as quickly as they can navigate it. Coupling those capabilities with machine learning puts awesome power in their hands. Now they can query databases for the most specific information that’s relevant to the particular job at hand. Having everyone—people in the field, in the office and online—accessing the same cloud-based imagery enables collaboration and a faster work process.
Such sophisticated visual tools can help engineers manage decisions at every stage of every project, from identifying leads and creating proposals to monitoring the progress of the construction and maintaining the completed job over time.
But, for the sake of simplicity, let’s examine how high-resolution aerial imagery can assist in just one phase of a project: the design lifecycle.
Bidding. You can’t bid on what you can’t see. That means familiarity with the site and all its surroundings, down to square inches. How else can you tell what you’re dealing with? That requires visual resolution precise enough that each pixel translates to 3 inches on the surface of the ground—information four to 12 times as sharp as satellite images.
Estimating. In order to arrive at an approximation of costs, you need the most up-to-date information to provide the most current data. A more accurate picture, captured within the last few days or weeks, can help engineers calculate what resources they might have to deploy, as well as a sense of how much time to devote to the project.
Pre-design. This sort of work takes into account ground features, impacts on neighborhoods or surrounding areas, and staging and laydown areas. Combining high-resolution aerial images with modeling software—example: AutoCAD Civil 3D—can help create and manage digital representations of the physical world, completely eliminating time-consuming and repetitive manual drawings.
Field measurement and validation. Imagine sending a team to a location with “inspection grade” imagery. With measurements accurate within inches, people in the field know what they’re in for before they even get to the site. And, once they do, it’s a simpler matter to validate the data.
Design adjustment. As new information and new demands pour in, you can’t modify a plan without clear and current visualizations. And if your adjustments require input from multiple sources, it helps to have everyone on the same page—or, at least, looking at the same images, so that the team can work more collaboratively, efficiently and with greater speed.
Final approval. Getting that sign-off requires some fundamental trust among different parties. You increase that level of trust and credibility if a project design is based on accurate imagery. Undoubtedly, there will be lots of changes in the project going forward. But starting at the same place, with a high degree of confidence in the precision of visual detail, is absolutely key.
Go live. Starting with an accurate, up-to-date visual representation of a project—and all the physical factors that impinge on it—is the easiest way to launch an enterprise and keep on top of it to achieve that “breaking ground” moment in each construction project.
That’s how high-resolution aerial imagery can help the initial phases of an engineer’s work. It can also be instrumental to all aspects of construction, maintenance and expansion cycles, as well as changes to existing landscapes. Every aspect of a project requires a series of decisions—and with them, multiple risks. But having easy access to sharp, recently created visuals can help minimize uncertainty by enabling smarter and faster decisions.
Armed with such technology, imagine what Brunelleschi might create today.