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By Dave Neitz, CIO, CDM Smith
Everybody is fascinated by the Internet of Things (IoT) lately, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in particular.
"Implementing disruptive technologies including IoT, sensors, and UAVs can mean running businesses and operations in a completely new way"
Businesses of all sizes, in just about every industry, can now use interconnected devices to capture data in real time. Using IoT solutions like sensor technology on equipment, we’re able to continually evaluate the performance of our clients’ water treatment systems by measuring indicators like flow rates, temperature, and salinity. We can then say that we’ve looked at fifteen plants with similar capacity where pumps were replaced after 10 years, and we can estimate the life of that pump. Sensors tracking water and electricity, by comparing it with other similar-sized plants, can tell us whether a client’s facility is using electricity more aggressively. With this data, we can then help optimize those systems and streamline operations to reduce energy use and costs.
As for UAVs, they are a platform for sensor technology enabling businesses to gather data that wasn’t accessible before. We have a Federal Aviation Administration Section 333 waiver to use UAVs commercially, meaning that we can legally and safely fly them under 200 feet. This allows us to gather information on engineering sites, for example, where each project is unique with specific needs for inspection and data collection.
When one of our project teams needs to produce an environmental impact statement, they can now use UAVs to gather images of vegetation and wildlife, creating a more detailed report. UAVs can be used in disaster and response mapping, as we did during the recent flooding in South Carolina. With bridge and tower inspections, we can take baseline measurements and then continually track movements to see supports shifting over time—and catch wear and tear much more quickly.
Implementing Disruptive Technologies Including IoT, Sensors, And UAVs Can Mean Running Businesses And Operations In A Completely New Way
In general, UAVs can perform these tasks more quickly and effectively than a person—a multi-week, manual inspection process can be condensed to just a day. This data can be in the form of videos, photographs, infrared images, or light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technology that measures distance by emitting streams of light and analyzing the return time and angle of reflected light. LiDAR generates precise, three-dimensional information about the shape and surface of the object or area being scanned.
Data can be mapped over several days, creating comparisons and calculations to see everything, from the shifting ground on a project site to the progression of construction on a job. By reducing the time and staff required for these activities, we dramatically reduce the cost.
In addition to saving time and money, new technologies allow maintenance and construction without shutdowns or interrupting services. Gathering images for road repairs used to mean closing a lane and hanging someone in a bucket over a highway. The permitting of lane closure and equipments are costly, and can’t been done in the dark, leaving a narrow window. Using UAVs, we can capture better images without disrupting traffic, and do in 90 minutes what used to take a full day.
Making Data More Accessible
Since sensor prices have fallen dramatically, the technology is now widely available—and with it, valuable digital capital that can make businesses more flexible and profitable. In fact, worldwide, transistors are now being produced at a greater rate than grains of rice consumed. For the price of about seven 5-pound bags of rice (150,000 grains each), you can purchase a 16GB flash drive made of 128 billion transistors. Do the math and you will find out that you can buy 125,000 transistors for the cost of a single grain of rice (Fortune 500).
With this affordable technology, new capabilities are now at our fingertips. So the question becomes, how does this apply to your business—how can you include sensors in your equipment and environment to take advantage of this technology? A wide range of applications are already in use. Geologists can explore sites in far greater detail, and environmental scientists can use 3D imagery to plan and design remediation. Tall structures like wind turbines and oil rigs can be monitored for safety and repairs, and medicine and supplies can be delivered to areas where roads are impassable.
The first step to evolving your enterprise technology is to free up dollars and capacity for innovation and advancement, and work towards incremental improvements. We look at innovation on three levels; incremental, sustaining, and disruptive. Consistent incremental improvements keep costs down and facilities current. Sustaining changes provide new results and can bring a competitive edge. And disruptive technologies are those that transform an industry.Headquartered in Boston, U.S., CDM Smith is an engineering and construction firm that offers solutions in environment, transportation, energy, water to private and public clients across the globe.