One of the favorite tropes in thrillers and war movies is “The Display.” Political leaders, nuclear power plant operators, spies or law enforcement personnel gather around a screen, tabletop display or hologram, and all the information they could possibly desire—troop movements, rainfall patterns, power station locations, roadblocks—is perfectly displayed in a way that is immediately apprehensible by even the meanest intelligence. This information is always in real-time, color-coded and geolocated where appropriate. Video is instantly available, and those viewing “The Display” can always drill down as needed; that is, individual elements of “The Display” can be tapped or clicked or verbally queried for more detail and analysis by an omniscient computer.

The problem with this trope is that it’s been a fantasy or, at least, science fiction; until recently, even in the most sophisticated settings—the Pentagon war room for example—displays have bowed to reality. The information is on several screens (or clipboards), relevant data is hours or days (or weeks) out of date, drill down is cumbersome, and crucial information is in the form of columns of numbers rather than pretty charts.

But all that’s changing. Life is beginning to imitate art, and new systems are emerging that really do address the real need for rich, real-time information, displayed in ways that cut through complexity and enable fast decision-making in high-pressure situations. The best systems combine data from GIS layers, ubiquitous sensors, video feeds and sources as varied as satellite data and weather radar into single displays that facilitate instant analysis. They’re being used in power stations, on oil rigs, by emergency response teams and now, thanks to research and development by Hexagon, the parent company of Intergraph and Leica Geosystems, they’re about to become commonplace in dams, levees, canals and other critical water infrastructure.


“In 2010, I was general manager of Intergraph in China,” Justin Schmidt says, “and Changjiang Institute of Survey, Planning, Design and Research (CISPDR) approached us, looking for better ways to manage water infrastructure.” China, like the United States and much of the rest of the world, is burdened with old and failing infrastructure, and most of it is absolutely region-critical. Water infrastructure, in particular, is a huge concern; for Americans, the Katrina-induced New Orleans levee failures—where 50 levee failures led to the flooding of more than 100,000 homes and businesses—were a vivid reminder of the stakes involved. For China, which favors massive installations such as the Three Gorges Dam and the South–North Water Transfer Project, the stakes may be even higher.

CISPDR came to Intergraph looking for ways to leverage sensor data so that remote water infrastructure management would be more effective. Officials also wanted a system that would synthesize data streams from sensors and other sources into single, geolocated displays, and they wanted alerts and information routing that would automatically implement procedures ranging from routine maintenance to emergency evacuations. They wanted “The Display.”

“Hexagon is well-placed to develop this kind of technology,” says Schmidt, who is now executive manager for Hexagon Synergy Solutions. “With Leica Geosystems and Intergraph, and the rest of the brands in our group, we’re unique in the breadth and depth of the technology we can bring to bear on this problem.” Schmidt spearheaded research that led to a pilot installation on China’s Lushui Dam, a large dam built as part of the massive Three Gorges project. It’s actually older than the Three Gorges Dam and served as the pilot site for the Three Gorges project.

“The owners of the Lushui Dam faced a lot of challenges, and so did we,” Schmidt says. “It’s an old dam, with a lack of risk-based monitoring systems and no clear emergency procedures. The owners wanted to minimize onsite operators and monitor the dam remotely, but they had little to no sensor data to work with. It was an excellent test case for us.”

Beginning in 2010 and working through late 2011, Schmidt and Intergraph treated the dam as one big laboratory. Along with the installation of sensors and other equipment and the writing of software routines, they eventually identified and implemented three major components of any comprehensive water infrastructure management system.


•          Rule-based decision-making based on real-time data streams.

•          A routing system that automatically notified key personnel when certain conditions were met.

•          Automatic coordination of pre-established responses, based on alerts.


Along with this, they also created dashboards that displayed on single screens a wealth of important data, including:

•          Real-time sensor data appraising current dam status.

•          Point cloud data and conventional survey data.

•          Historical sensor data, enabling analysis of current readings.

•          Document management, including inspection reports.

•          Alarms and alerts, both current and historical.

•          Integrated video feeds accessible via geolocated icons.

•          Task management similar to automated maintenance routines.

•          2D and 3D geospatial views, including GIS overlays and weather patterns in the entire watershed.

•          System administration tools and easy drill down and analysis of data.

•          At-a-glance dam status reports and alerts.


So for China’s Lushui Dam, “The Display” has become a reality.


As work on the Lushui Dam was completed, Schmidt and Hexagon realized they had a potentially world-changing solution on their hands. Accordingly, 2012 was spent developing the wealth of ideas and systems generated during the Lushui Dam project into a mature suite of products. In early 2013 those products, the Hexagon Hydrology Overall Solution, or H2O Solution, was implemented at Lushui Dam, making it the world’s first major dam to be remotely managed by a mature, modular system that can be applied to other sites. It has since been implemented in a pilot phase for Changjiang (Yangtze River) Flood Committee, and a large pilot project for Russian Hydro is just getting underway.

“Other firms and agencies have been working on this,” Schmidt says. “For example, the Army Corps of Engineers, among others around the world, has contracted or developed in house several aspects of the system we came up with. But these have been rudimentary, applicable only to particular sites, and they haven’t worked within a comprehensive, integrated, and real-time system.”

By contrast, H2O Solution is a mature offering, transferable to other sites, and can be implemented on a module basis, where modules draw on common data pools, have a consistent interface and work together synergistically as implemented.

Modules fall into twelve functional areas, with some overlap. They are training; monitoring; security management; emergency response, engineering and maintenance; inspection; dam and reservoir operations; water management and flood control; information management; infrastructure safety assessment; risk evaluation; and safety appraisal.

“There’s really nothing else like it,” says Gerard Manley, vice president of engineered solutions at Leica Geosystems. “It’s built from components, or modules, that can stand alone, but they can also work together to create a comprehensive system that covers all aspects of water infrastructure management.”

The hope, of course, is that H2O Solution will extend the useful lifespan of vital water infrastructure installations around the world, potentially avoiding failures such as those that devastated New Orleans. But, in the event of failure, extreme weather events, or other emergencies, H2O Solution still has an important function: the emergency response module creates a “common operating picture” that can be shared with other teams and agencies responding to crisis, and dam managers can preload response scenarios, organizational charts and procedures, and other planning that will make disaster response more efficient and effective. H2O Solution is designed to work with other agencies to:


•          Increase situational awareness for all stakeholders.

•          Provide geospatial information, such as the location of key equipment and evacuation routes.

•          Provide a reporting system to keep important information up to date.

•          Extract information as needed from other H2O Solution modules.

Basically, H2O Solution is designed to avoid emergencies. But when bad things happen, it will still be on the job, coordinating response and helping to minimize damage.


Surveyors play an important role in making “The Display” a reality. “One of the general functions for any for any dam operational plan is inspection,” Manley says. “It’s required; it’s just like the checklist that applies to planes before takeoff. Regular inspections are required for safe operation of dams, and most of those inspections have a spatial component—surveyors obviously have a role to play there.”

The “spatial component” is increasingly being satisfied by regular, comparative laser scanning and by scheduled total station monitoring of permanently installed prisms. Comparing new survey work to historical spatial data is a powerful way to predict and avoid failures and to identify needed rehabilitation.

The type of operational paradigm being established by H2O Solution could eventually extend to even more complex infrastructure, such as skyscrapers, power plants, highway systems and large bridges. As new systems are implemented, surveyors—in their role as expert measurers—will be key components of the struggle to maintain the world’s vital infrastructure and will also be major players in the prevention of and response to disasters and emergencies.

 It is a challenging world where the systems our culture relies on are due to fail. But new technology such as Hexagon’s H2O Solution, and the skills of surveyors and other infrastructure professionals, are being applied in ways that will help us all to get the most possible use out of the world we’ve built.