Baku International Sea Trade Port, located in Azerbaijan’s capital city of Baku, is the largest and most important port in the Caspian Sea. Founded 1902 as a couple of wooden jetties, the port has expanded over the past century to accommodate the trade of oil and other goods between Europe and Asia. It already handles several million tons of cargo per year, and its importance in the region continues to grow.

To ensure that the port will be able to meet future needs for intercontinental trade, the Azerbaijan government recently embarked on a three-phase development project to build a new port complex in Alat, 40 miles (65 km) south of Baku. The first phase of the project includes the construction of two ferry berths and four general cargo berths as well as a modern logistics center designed to make the new port more attractive and effective. Managed by the Dutch engineering firm Royal Haskoning, the project has required a substantial amount of survey work. In 2009, Royal Haskoning contracted Fugro to handle an offshore survey of the approaches to the new port. As work on the port progressed, additional surveys of the land in the port basin area were required along with surveys of railways, roads, power lines, built-up areas, wetlands and other manmade features in the area. These were needed to facilitate the planning, logistics and construction work.

A point cloud of a typical survey area.

The land survey data would need to join up with the hydrographic data, providing a seamless digital terrain model (DTM) of the basin area. In the past, the only way to gather the required onshore survey data would have been through airborne survey techniques or traditional land surveys--and, more likely, some combination of both methods. However, airborne surveys were deemed too expensive for this project, and traditional land survey techniques would be too slow given the huge coverage area. Instead, the project team specified mobile mapping because of its ability to quickly and accurately collect huge amounts of data.

The terrain to be surveyed was varied and difficult. It included wide-open mud flats, extremely rough and pitted waste ground that had been excavated for sand, small villages, main highways, railway embankments, disused industrial facilities and marshy transition zone areas. The only vehicle able to traverse the whole landscape was a huge buggy that was originally designed for working in the Louisiana swamps and was now mainly employed as a mobile drilling platform and workhorse around the Caspian Sea.

The buggy crosses a small river during the data collection work.

Given the challenges of the project, Royal Haskoning opted to use a Dynascan mobile mapping system from MDL Laser Systems. According to the project team, factors that were considered in the decision included the ruggedized construction of the system, which is designed for the rough terrain of mines and quarries; the ease with which the system could be adapted to a new mobile platform; and the range of the laser, which made it useful in areas where pipelines, walls or extreme terrain reduced accessibility for the buggy.

Fitting the Dynascan on a new vehicle is a simple process. However, the buggy had previously been working as a water transporter and had to be completely customized to carry not just the Dynascan but also two personnel sitting on the side of the vehicle and operating the data collection software. Welders and carpenters were employed to assist the fabrication of cabinet on the buggy to hold the computers and power supplies and to act as a survey desk, and a platform was built on the side of the buggy to support the surveyors.

Originally, the aim was to simultaneously collect data and process the point cloud in the field. However, once the survey was under way, it was clear that this would be impossible. The buggy had no suspension other than large, low-pressure tires, and the rough terrain required the operator to focus much of his attention on controlling the vehicle while also monitoring the progress of the survey, watching the quality control indicators and shouting instructions to the driver.

The RTK base station with the buggy in the background.

During the early stages of the project, the crew also encountered an additional challenge: Torrential rains transformed the dry and sun-baked landscape into a quagmire. Even the all-terrain buggy regularly became stuck in the marshy areas, and much time was spent extracting the vehicle from the thick mud. The crew decided to focus exclusively on data collection in the field and reserve the processing and data cleaning for the office.

Nonetheless, the real-time processing capabilities of the technology did offer a substantial benefit during the field work portion of the project. The Dynascan is used in conjunction with QINSy, an online data collection package that takes information from the scanner’s sensors and produces real-time quality control information and filtering. A plan view of the survey area, overlaid with DXF topographical layers as well as the areas already scanned, provided the crew with an awareness of the areas that had been covered and the areas that still required surveying. The open areas could be planned with predefined survey lines that the buggy could drive up and down sequentially. In more complex areas where the path was determined by obstacles such as pipelines and buildings, the navigation screen was used to “paint in” more and more coverage, until no gaps remained in the survey.

Another point cloud from the survey.

An RTK base station at the center of the project area provided GPS corrections that were picked up by the Dynascan’s radio antenna. System checks were done twice a day when the buggy was driven past areas that had been densely surveyed by local surveyors through conventional means. Each night, the scanned data was compared with the surveyed data for a confidence check on the absolute position of the survey and the quality of the scanning laser pitch, roll and heading sensors in the scanner. About 18 days of surveying were required to complete the data collection process, which is far less than what would have been required through traditional means.

A vast amount of data was produced, cleaned and adjusted--billions of points in all. The finalized point clouds produced matched up perfectly with the data collected from the survey boats and offered great value to the project ontractors. “The survey in Azerbaijan proved to be a harsh test for both the Dynascan system and the personnel involved in gathering the survey data,” says Mike Brooks, a consultant for MDL Laser Systems. “The Dynascan performed extremely well under these conditions, providing useful and consistent data.”

Construction on the first phase of the new complex began in 2009 and is planned to be nearing completion in 2014, providing Azerbaijan with a modern and impressive new port. For Royal Haskoning and Fugro, the project is also providing a gateway to the future by opening new opportunities through mobile mapping.