Infrastructure is evolving. So must we.

Infrastructure is evolving. So must we.

Written By Paul Hargreaves, of CH2M

In the immortal words of John Cleese in Monty Python’s ‘The Life of Brian’ “What have the Romans evern done for us?” The characters then reel off no fewer than 10 things that the Romans had done for the people of the time;, the majority of which involved early Roman engineers applying the technology of the day to solve society’s challenges. In many cases they were applying existing technologies in ways that others had not considered previously  due to the challenges of increasing populations in urbanised areas. Jump forwards in time to 2017, and engineers face similar challenges, albeit on a different scale, and with a few other complications thrown into the mix, such as climate change, the global financial downturn, and a population explosion.

Today, clean drinking water, resilient homes, and efficient transportation are amongst those issues that people may rank as being of utmost importance in making them feel happy, safe and secure. Now, more than ever, engineering needs to adapt to overcome the challenges of the current day and beyond. With the world population set to increase by 32% (2.4 billion) by the year 2050 (United Nations, 2015), and the spectre of climate change, engineers must harness the power of technology in new and innovative ways.

From a technology perspective, how will we plan, design and construct the infrastructure of tomorrow?  Allow me to walk you through how technology is transforming a major project near you; the Exeter flood defence scheme.

For major infrastructure projects, the planning and design starts many years in advance of the actual construction, and this has certainly been true for the Exeter Flood Defence Scheme. Some of the techniques described in this article had not been developed when the Exeter scheme was being designed and as such I’ve referenced other more recent projects to enable you to see how the latest technology could have been employed.

So, what kind of planning and design is needed for a project of this type, and how can technology assist with answering challenging questions, like, where should we build the flood defences? How high do they need to be? What will they look like?



At the beginning of any major infrastructure project we first need to understand the lay of the land. Traditionally, this would have involved fairly well-established methods for surveying using a tried and tested engineering tool called a theodolite. While this technique is accurate and effective, it can take a significant amount of time.

The latest technology, although not used on the Exeter flood defence scheme, has been employed on the TEAM2100 (Thames Estuary Asset Management 2100) project in London. This project looks at flood defence assets along 350km of the River Thames, protecting 1.3 million people and £275 billion worth of property from tidal flood risk. The technology used was mounted on an Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), or as they’re more commonly known drones. By attaching a range of sensors to the drones the team can efficiently capture 3D topography, HD aerial photography and HD video all at the same time.

The greatest benefit of drone surveys is in the sheer volume of data that is captured in a shorter timeframe, with roughly 2km of linear survey completed per day, collecting millions of 3D data points and also allowing the opportunity to gain more data than ever before as the drones can get an unobstructed view of the area it’s surveying. This high quantity and quality of data allows detailed digital ground models to be built, and are then available for design and ongoing monitoring during and after construction.

Geo-located Ultra-High Definition video and High-Resolution photographs are also captured and used for flood defence inspections. Which allows planning of further, more detailed, inspections and can remove the need for visits to the site, reducing health and safety risk by eliminating the need to work in hazardous conditions. The videos, photos and level data also form a permanent record to allow easy comparison of asset deterioration or movement over time with regular repeat flights.



Following on from the survey, we are now able to build a mathematical model of the river system, which will be used to predict the severity of the flooding, where it will occur, and hence what kind of defences will be required. The model will not only need to take into account the flows in the River Exe, but also the large network of interlinked watercourses and surface water sewers in the City.

Once the data for the river is combined with the contributing network of watercourses and sewers then the model can be analyzed, which requires millions of calculations to be completed. Until recently this would have taken weeks to complete on a single computer, but the advent of cloud based analysis has transformed the industry overnight.

‘Cloud computing’ is the practice of using a network of remote servers hosted on the internet to store, manage, and process data, rather than a local server or personal computer.

CH2M have teamed up with an innovation company based out of the University of Chicago in the USA, to integrate their Flood Modeller software with their Parallel Works platform, and the Amazon AWS cloud. The new CH2M service, called Flood Cloud, provides an innovative cloud-based platform that can reduce model runs that may have previously taken several weeks, down to a few hours. Flood Cloud is available globally to help our clients, policy makers, government bodies and academics. In essence, it helps anyone who needs to understand flood risk.

We now understand the lay of the land, where the flood defences need to be located, and roughly what size they need to be, but what will they look like? In the past, we would have relied upon artist’s impressions to assist clients, local residents, and other stakeholders understand how the proposed flood defences would appear, but technical drawings can be difficult to understand.

With Virtual Reality (VR) the viewer can be immersed in the design immediately and see in a photo realistic way how the infrastructure will look and its spatial layout. Although this has not been used on the Exeter Flood Defence scheme, a bridge project in Scotland used VR to resurrect a project that had been shelved for seven years. Use of a VR model helped to reignite investors interests in the £4.5m   as they were able to see the grandeur of the proposed bridge, affectionately known as “Bigman” after a sculpture designed by local artist Andy Scott to hold up the cables of the bridge (see photo).

Using a combination of drone surveys, photogrammetry and 3D modelling, a fully interactive virtual reality model of the proposed footbridge was created to allow the client, contractor, design collaborators and potential project funders to experience the structure. The first stage of the process was to create a photo-realistic model of the surrounding area. This was achieved by taking a series of aerial images from a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle). These photos were then combined with photos taken at ground level with handheld cameras, through a process called photogrammetry to produce a 3D model of the structure’s environment. This model, augmented with Google maps 3D environment and a 3D model of the proposed structure and sculpture could be converted to a full VR model and then experienced through VR headsets (see photo below).

During the design process, our VR model assisted us during consultations with interested investors and will be useful again when it comes to public consultation, allowing members of the local community to see exactly what the proposed structure will look like.


We know where we need to build the defences, how high they need to be and what they’ll look like, but we now need to develop the design of the infrastructure being proposed, as up until this point a lot of the design has been visual, and spatial, but not rooted in understanding the way in which it should be constructed. For example, a flood wall might need to be 3 metres above ground level, but dependent upon the depth of water to be retained, the speed of the river pushing against the wall, and how long the wall needs to last for (100 years design life for example) will determine how thick the wall is, how deep its foundations are, and what material it should be constructed from. All of these are essential to understand, and with design teams spread across the UK and Europe, it can be a real challenge when preparing such designs in isolation.

However, with the application of the right technology such challenges can melt away, which was the case for the Exeter Flood Defence Scheme which had teams developing details jointly across four separate offices (three in England, and one in Poland). The piece of technology is a bolt-on to another now widely accepted technology; Skype. The Skype for Business software allows designers to seamlessly share files, their computer screens, live video feeds, and even give permission to those located elsewhere to take control of their machine. All of these functions unleash the designers from the constraints of their physical location to aid in design development, exchange of ideas, identifying opportunities, and demonstrating any improvements that might be possible. This software has removed the need for a large number of face to face meetings which would have required expensive travel, cost the project time and money, as well as the associated pollution generated by whatever form of transport required to get those travelling from A to B.


With the design complete, our focus shifts to making the process as safe, environmentally friendly and as cost effective as possible.  One of the coolest bits of tech on a construction site is ‘on-the-fly’ controls (OTF) for construction plant (bulldozers, excavators etc), which is of particular importance when moving large amounts of earth around. This system is like sat-nav for construction plant, with the 3D co-ordinates for the engineer’s design being transmitted directly to the construction plant, so that the depth of excavation, or shaping of the ground is automated and thus removes the need for workers to be put at risk by being in close proximity to large machines. It also speeds the process up and improves accuracy as continual marking out of the new levels is not required.

In addition to the OTF controls another recent innovation is the use of handheld smart technology which enables the site staff to better record, monitor, and respond to issues that arise during the construction works. This cuts down the duplication of effort from site staff who would have previously had to record progress in many different formats, from hand written notes, to photos, to phone call records. CH2M have created a new app (CH2Mobile) which can be used on a tablet, mobile phone or laptop to simplify this process and take the pressure off staff when doing the site supervision works which frees up their time to better manage the project.



What can we expect so see over the coming months and years as technology continues to gain in importance for the engineering of civilization? Well we can expect to see more and more projects using the techniques described in this article to improve safety, reduce costs and protect the environment, but I would also predict the rise in the use of the Internet of Things (IoT).

The IoT is the linking of vehicles, physical devices, electronics, software, and sensors across existing networks, to improve accuracy, efficiency, and reduce costs, which will in turn create the next big step change in how we use technology, to better control our use of power, water, transportation and ultimately our cities.

We need to employ technology in an innovative and interconnected way if we are to ensure the future of our beautiful planet, and all the life on it. Especially as today’s engineers have not quite reached the heights of the engineers in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy yet, who built a replacement Earth upon discovering that the planet had accidentally been demolished to make way for a new galactic highway.



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