Last year, my traditional Thanksgiving holiday with family and friends was replaced with a trip to Salzburg, Austria, to attend and participate at the Capturing Reality Forum, a technical conference focused on 3D, laser scanning and LiDAR technologies. Rebranded as the Capturing Reality Forum for the 2015 event, the conference organizers, Diversified Communications, decided to merge the European LiDAR Mapping Forum (ELMF) with the SPAR Europe event into one conference, in hopes of drawing more attendees and further enhancing the technical program. In addition, the conference returned to Salzburg, where it was held at the modern and spacious Salzburg Congress. The conference venue is an impressive facility that features modern amenities, all of which can be visualized on the web using an interactive, 3D model — a perfect fit with this 3D event.

As one of the few Americans in attendance at this event, I was able to learn a great deal about how Europeans are leveraging 3D reality capture technologies to support their business needs, allowing them to perform operations more efficiently while also saving money by utilizing advanced measurement technologies to support/automate field work.

In my estimation, the main difference between the U.S. and European reality capture markets is a function of geography. The limited physical space in Europe requires that public transit (bus, tram, subway, rail, etc.) be very efficient in moving people from place to place, rather than the uniquely American concept of basing transportation infrastructure priorities on the mobility and storage of millions of inefficient, low-occupancy (i.e. single person) automobiles. As such, most Europeans directly experience the positive results of their public infrastructure investment decisions, as they frequently use and enjoy a highly-efficient public transit system. It should come as no surprise that many Americans who rarely travel on mass transit systems do not fully appreciate the long-term value of public transit investments.

To illustrate the application of 3D technologies to support public transit infrastructure projects, Luke Cooper, a digital specialist with Arup, offered a fascinating presentation on the Great Western Route Modernization (GWRM) project. This effort is being contracted by Network Rail, which operates this popular rail line between London and Bristol in the United Kingdom. The purpose of the project is to improve rail service and rider safety, while decreasing their environmental impact by replacing aging diesel locomotives with larger, more efficient electric trains.

In order to redesign this section of railway without significant service disruptions, Arup developed a comprehensive project information system based on the “common data environment” architecture. This system allowed GWRM project members to access CAD design files, project documents, tabular data and geospatial / survey information through a simple web portal. The benefit of sharing project data in this manner is enormous; team collaboration, task prioritization and project team coordination is greatly enhanced, as all stakeholders have direct access to the same project materials and spatial data assets.

During his presentation, Cooper demonstrated several examples of how easy it was for GWRM project personnel to access as-built spatial information, including panoramic (360-degree) imagery, static laser scans, airborne photography and survey data. The team’s ability to visualize areas of concern during the design and construction phases was critical to maintaining the project’s schedule while also providing a communications mechanism to report design conflicts and develop practical design alternatives. Furthermore, the ability to rapidly visualize any section of this rail line provided project managers with a unique ability to monitor progress and verify the completion of various project tasks.

By utilizing advanced 3D technologies, physical design conflicts and project scheduling priorities can be identified and resolved prior to the construction work in the field.

Given the popularity of public transit services in Europe, transportation authorities also have a greater interest in capturing and modeling existing transportation infrastructure than their peers in America. This increased interest in reality capture is especially acute when it involves older transportation infrastructure that has been in service for several decades. Using new 3D capture technologies, structural engineers and transportation inspectors are able to analyze the acquired point cloud data to detect subtle movements and shifts that may indicate structural integrity issues. Not only do these new 3D measurement technologies provide inspectors with quantifiable evidence of structural movement, but they also allow for long-term structural trend analysis. This enhanced capability permits structural engineers to understand all of the hidden forces affecting the tunnel infrastructure, which has a direct impact on capital project planning and budgeting activities.

One of the best presentations on this subject from the Capturing Reality Forum was given by Sinan Acikgoz, a research associate with the University of Cambridge. His talk was titled “Laser Scanning for Structural Health Monitoring: Opportunities and Challenges,” and it discussed a case study that demonstrated how 3D laser scanning helped assess the structural health of aging transportation infrastructure. The case study involved infrastructure analysis work in London for the UK’s Royal Mail, which operated an underground railway system to deliver mail, also known as the “Mail Rail.” Going forward, this structural research will help support plans by the Islington Council in London to allow tourists to descend beneath the city and ride the “secret tube” beginning in 2020.

Another significant difference between the European and U.S. reality capture markets is the sheer number of sub-surface facilities that require inspection and management. Transportation infrastructure in Europe has a much higher density of underground rail lines, tunnels, vaults and complex utility systems providing sewer, water, electric and natural gas services. As such, Europeans are more technically advanced and experienced with capturing subsurface transportation infrastructure, which presents unique technical challenges. The most significant challenge with subsurface projects is that surveying and measurement technologies must operate without support from global positioning systems (GPS).

Speaking on this topic, Johan Kuppens of neanex and Johannes Anrijs of BESIX delivered a presentation titled “Light at the end of the Tunnel: Integrated BIM for the failure-free Retrofitting of a Motorway Tunnel” on the final day of the conference. This project case study involved the reality capture and redesign of the Velser Tunnel complex operated by Rijkswaterstaat, the agency responsible for the design, construction, management and maintenance of the main infrastructure facilities in the Netherlands.

Constructed in the early 1960s, the Velser Tunnel was in dire need of retrofitting, so neanex was charged with redesigning the tunnel to include modern amenities including video cameras, traffic signals and roadway safety features. Working closely with the construction team at BESIX, the project team from neanex captured the entire tunnel complex using laser scanning and generated 3D models in Autodesk Civil3D and Revit.

Following the reality capture activities, the project team implemented an “Integrated BIM Engineering Process” that allowed the users to identify design conflicts using Navisworks software integrated with a Relatics asset database. By using this approach, 127 interfaces between object types were identified, which detected over 1,000 clashes from 92 separate clash tests. By allowing project managers to resolve these critical design issues in the office, the project saved countless field labor hours during the construction phase.

Overall, my sense is that the Europeans have much different attitudes and opinions regarding infrastructure investment than their American counterparts, for a variety of reasons. First, and most importantly, discussions in the U.S. involving large-scale infrastructure projects (and their funding mechanisms) often get heavily politicized by competing interests. These political distractions help take the public’s attention off of the real issue behind capital investment efforts: increased interstate commerce supported by improved public facilities (roads, bridges, tunnels, etc.).

Secondly, the greater population density in Europe requires citizens to be more open-minded to technological innovation that enhances their communities, especially public transit. Reality capture is now commonly used in Europe to support public transit programs, which can also require support for adjacent historical structures and monuments. The U.S. market will likely adopt (and expedite!) the use of 3D reality capture technologies once commercial firms fully understand the rapid return on investment and collateral cost savings that are realized with this technical approach.

In summary, the benefit of using reality capture to support large infrastructure projects is clear. By utilizing advanced 3D technologies, physical design conflicts and project scheduling priorities can be identified and resolved prior to the construction work in the field — an approach that can literally save millions in unforeseen project costs.