Monitoring the movement of structures or land is at the core of land surveying. For geodetic and engineering surveyors, this task is probably one of the most challenging yet most fulfilling.

It involves all the elements of a surveying job, from mission planning, including geodetic network and sensor optimization to instrumentation deployment, data analysis and reporting. Yet when adding real-time monitoring, even the slightest temporal changes can be easily detected and logged in a comprehensive system.

Real-time monitoring enables geospatial professionals, construction managers, and mining and dam operators to stay connected to assets, providing up-to-the-minute data on condition and movement of structures or land. This information enables owners and project stakeholders to address potential problems, improve safety decisions and ensure structural integrity and future-proof their investment.

GNSS, optical instruments, geotechnical sensors and analytical software can be used to support movement analysis and visualization for both campaign (periodic or manual) monitoring applications or real-time operations. When used in real-time, monitoring significantly increases efficiency through automation, resulting in fewer site visits while increasing safety through instantaneous reporting and alarming.

For many surveying firms, it may seem overwhelming or unattainable. However, monitoring a structure or land formation is actually completely within a surveyors’ wheelhouse.

Monitoring in urban landscape in Italy
Monitoring in urban landscape in Italy.
Photo courtesy of Trimble

Real-Time Monitoring in Settlement Monitoring

By investing in real-time monitoring, surveyors can help to ensure construction site workers and assets are safe, while also reducing the risk of injury for their survey crew.

Monitoring systems are put in place to increase safety and awareness in situations that may not seem hazardous to the human eye. A sensor, which provides precise measurements that can be compared over time to detect change, will immediately register any changes.

A total station set up at a dam in Germany
A total station set up with prisms at a dam in Germany.
Photo courtesy of Trimble

Often, these measurements need to be made at locations that are difficult to reach and require special equipment to access (e.g., cherry picker or scissor lift). Measuring remotely to a network of targets and prisms removes the need for survey crews to physically be on site and in potential harm’s way.

Think of how a road crew will put out cones and, in some cases, wear protective gear. A monitoring system is that protective gear, providing predictive analysis that delivers a warning and early detection of a potential land or structural failure.

Commercial and residential construction, and infrastructure development are essential industries that support economies and communities around the world. Driven by urbanization and population growth, new geographic markets are opening for business, while large networks of aging infrastructures are repaired or replaced with upgraded systems.

Settlement monitoring a bridge in the U.S.
Settlement monitoring a bridge in the U.S.

The growing demand for sustainable and safe water and power sources, reliable communication grids, and sustainable buildings creates a greater need for advanced monitoring services to meet oversight and safety requirements on construction sites. Implementation of automated notification, alarming, movement visualization and reporting is mandatory on most critical infrastructure projects. 

Checking on construction site progress and ensuring the stability of surrounding structures are core requirements for most construction projects. In fact, monitoring site integrity and reporting on movement is often mandated in project charters.

It is likely that your traditional survey firms already have some of the tools and systems needed to bid for this service, whether the requirements are for periodic checks (e.g., weekly, monthly), or a fully automated solution with more frequent oversight (e.g., daily, hourly).

Settlement Monitoring’s Reliable Revenue

Another benefit to expanding a survey business’ offerings is to add more opportunity to service and build relationships with construction and asset owner/operator customers. This deepens the commitment to their project by supporting more than one piece of the solution allowing the surveyor to take a bigger picture approach to their work. And, by adding monitoring services now, the business might head off competition from monitoring companies that may be considering adding topographic data collection or construction layout to their services.

Thanks to the advancements in sensors and wireless technology, the “connected environment” leads to more automation that provides many opportunities to boost efficiency and reduce costs.

Setting up a monitoring station in Australia
Setting up a monitoring station in Australia.
Photo courtesy of Trimble

Investing in a monitoring solution makes it possible to replace time-consuming manual and repetitive processes with automated systems that operate independently. Rather than spending money on trucks and fuel, and spending time driving to each survey site, data can be continuously collected and transmitted to the office for automated analysis and report generation. After the initial setup, reliable monitoring systems continue providing real-time site information, leaving project teams time to handle more challenging activities and pursue new business opportunities.

A recurring revenue stream is predictable, stable and received at regular intervals. It can help even out cash flow and generate ongoing income from equipment that has already paid for itself.

A business model of recurring revenue also helps establish a relationship with the customer over a period of time as opposed to a one-off sale. Offering monitoring as a service is an opportunity for surveying firms to extend their range of capabilities and increase revenue on each project.

The data and analytics provided during the construction phase continue to have value once the asset is operational (e.g., dams, bridges, mines). Some monitoring solutions allow for sharing reports and information effectively in real time with the project team, asset owners and operators, with minimal consultative effort on the surveyor’s part.

Start by putting existing gear into use. Monitoring solutions have varying levels of complexity, starting with simple projects that make use of tools already on hand. While gaining experience with monitoring projects, hardware and software can be added to augment service offerings.

Over time, it may become appropriate to move on to fully automated, real-time data collection and reporting. Surveying businesses most likely already have most of the equipment needed to get started, especially if there is any stored away and not being utilized. Monitoring is a perfect opportunity to put that gear into use.

As a surveyor, it may make sense to consider evolving into a holistic provider for anything related to movement. There may be a potential learning curve on geotechnical sensors but knowing how passionate the industry is for tackling new challenges, this is a piece that can be grasped with some commitment and practice.

Learn more about data collection techniques and technologies

Both surveying and monitoring are critical to the world’s aging infrastructure. And with each new build, it becomes even more important to take care of the old.

When making the decision to innovate a surveying business and expand work capabilities by adding monitoring services, the current generation of surveyors will be ready to help take on the task of building a better and safer world.

Developing Monitoring Capabilities
A punch list from the pros at Trimble Geospatial

  1. Start with Trimble Access (TA) monitoring for periodic monitoring with a single instrument and a data controller (TSC3/TSC7), along with Trimble Business Center and Trimble Access Monitoring software.
  2. Add a Trimble Settop M1 communication device to a Trimble S-series total station and connect the data stream to Trimble 4D Control software in the office.
  3. Add more total stations and GNSS to create a networked geodetic solution.
  4. Add geotechnical sensors to collect different data, increasing the portfolio of services
  5. Manage multiple sites.

A version of this article originally appeared in the July 2020 issue of POB Magazine.