In conversations with friends and clients around the country, I am hearing the same story more often: things are busy, and we are hiring. Most of the applicants are younger and computer savvy, why are they so slow to learn? A fair question that begs a deeper dive. I will try to go over the process we recommend to our clients that might help you as well. This is not a “how-to” for all things GPS but rather a linear walk through of the issues surrounding training and eventual competence of a recruit.
One of my favorite thoughts when training a new person is that “we all start out as beginners.” After spending some time in the field and encountering your share of problems it’s easy to forget the growing pains. A common reset I use to make this obvious is to hammer a nail with my non-dominate hand. It is awkward, slow, and not pretty. That is exactly what the new person at the controller feels like. Pause and consider the person you’re training before blasting through a menu you know by heart.
Most of us were trained by someone taking us to the field, or parking lot with a dummy job, and going through the paces to get some basics down. From that point everything we did was learned by trial and error. On a jobsite where machines are moving and progress needs to be made, you cannot wait for a visit from a trainer. We had to make things happen. The process was slow, but over the months and years things got easier.
Who Do I Hire?
My second most asked question is, “What type of person should I hire for (fill in the blank) position?” I get asked this for office and field people. My answer has been consistent over the years and goes something like this: “It is easier to teach a person with field experience the mouse clicks than to try and instruct a computer super-user civil construction.” Now that you have my recommendation, here are the tips for finding them.
- Promote from within. A known level of experience and reliability that may need more training is a safe bet than somebody who looks good on paper.
- Somebody who is eager is better than someone with more skills that needs to be talked into the opportunity.
- Be realistic when recruiting. “Oh, it’s easy” is not reality.
- Just about everyone in today’s job market have enough computer skills to navigate office and field software. The quest is for a mind that thinks in 3D.
How Do I Train Them?
Even the best candidate will need to be trained in the way your company conducts the work. This may require backing up the process a few steps in order to get them to understand your workflow. This can be troublesome for a new person who feels their way is better or easier. Patience is going to play a big part. Hear them out: they may just have a better solution. The best way to get someone thinking like you is to map out your process so they can see how the dots look connected. This big picture presentation is a real help.
Start with documenting your processes before hiring. Putting your steps down on paper allows you to make sure nothing is missed as well as possibly streamlining your workflow. We all started out with a shotgun approach to learning and production. Now is the time to look at what you are doing and make sure it looks good. When you have reduced the elements of the tasks to their easiest elements, then you can effectively train. I use the traditional country song idea; if you look back at those old lyrics, there are no wasted words. Keep that in mind when you get ready to pass knowledge along.
- Care and maintenance come first. A rover with a dead battery is an expensive paper weight. Tools left in the truck at night get stolen. Make sure you have good policies in place.
- Daily setup and check-in will save more problems than anything else. I have seen a full day of work a couple tenths off due to incorrect rover pole height. This cannot be overstressed.
- Spend time on naming and saving job file versions. We send out all our files with dates on them for this reason. Most of the time a call with an issue is traced to somebody on an older version of the file.
- If this is a ground person and they are the lead, will they be updating machines as well? With multiple surface types being made for each job, this becomes particularly important. Top of dirt, top of subgrade, and finished topsoil surfaces for one job can get confusing. We find it works best when a ground person updates machines as well.
- I am a big fan of crawl before you walk. We old timers figured out a lot of things in the early days. We cannot expect a new hire to get it quickly. Listed is an idea of what to train and in what order. Only when they are competent in one should you advance them to the next level.
- Equipment setup. This includes the base, rovers, and machines. The ground person should be able to navigate settings on machines as well as load and update jobsite files.
- Checking in to a control point at the start of each day and benching in machines to verify their accuracy and wear edge settings.
- Rough surface marking comes next. This is a good way to evaluate a person’s ability to think in three dimensions. Guiding mass excavation should get things within a few tenths and it keeps a person busy on a big site. I tape red and blue marking paint cans together, go to an area and paint a big number in the dirt and maybe even mark along the daylight line for that area.
- Utilities may be going also. Now comes the time for performing detailed layout. We produce points for flow lines of pipe as well as offsets to save the grade checker from constantly running back to a run. You will need to teach all about points for this portion, it is a lot to learn and will take time.
- When utilities are mastered, site details are not a big step. 2D radius points and curb offsets need to be explained and shown in the field. The best way to teach this is to get out there and follow the new user as they do the work.
- Some companies have their field people do small changes on the fly either in the field or back at the office. I feel everyone needs to know how data prep works. It helps their understanding of why things look the way they do in the field.
How Long Does It Take to Train?
It is safe to assume that all people will learn at a different pace. You are required to feel this out and adjust accordingly. Here are some thoughts.
- You need to understand learning styles. A visual learner will do better watching you do the work and absorb the process. Tactile types will only get the idea when they press the buttons. Know your student to make the process go quicker.
- The process needs to be broken into sections. As each is mastered then the next can be tackled. The previous section of this article shows the chapters of the book that need to be absorbed. Jumping ahead before the first is memorized will result in frustration.
- You cannot be on site the entire time while a newbie is learning. Responsibilities will require you to go and do other things while they are alone to perform some work. Most of the time questions can be answered by a phone call. You should know the software well enough to answer the basics.
Who Should the Trainer Be?
Every company needs a champion. That is the person who knows the equipment and has a comprehensive knowledge of all phases of your process. I have stressed over the years that this is critical to success. The champion is the early adopter and looks at bugs and setbacks as part of the process. In a smaller company this may be the trainer as well.
A dedicated trainer/GPS manager in larger companies will have a different role. Their focus is more on the field. They know what is happening with office work and how to do it, but they need to keep machines moving. Not only will they train new hires but will be required to keep the field machines working and up to date.
Manufacturers also offer training. It is a great start for new hires, especially if they are switching brands. These people know what to do but are not familiar with the buttons to press. In person or online training allows you to get the heavy lifting of learning software and basics out of the way. Be aware that they still need to learn how your company performs and documents processes. That is something only you can do.
Initially, the biggest impact from machine control came to the heavy highway contractors. I can remember when Blade Pro 3D and a robot could make crisp crown transitions and get contractors bonus money for smoothness. Even with machine control technology being used in all aspects of civil construction, highway work still benefits from being on the front lines of development. Construction technology manufacturers know the high stakes associated with this work and focus their development on being first to market for new concepts and improvements.
Over the years we have made sure to be in front of the curve. It is satisfying to help a contractor by providing the correct files for their new technology. A client that is new to high level machine control may not initially want to be tasked with model building in addition to field responsibilities. Equipment manufacturers put data modelers together with these people to make things easier. This only happens because the manufacturers trust our work, guaranteeing success. I will cover some things we have been doing for years as well as some newer uses for data in a road model.
International Roughness Index (IRI)
IRI is the standard to quantify road surface roughness. A continuous profile along the road is measured and analyzed to summarize qualities of pavement surface deviations that impact vehicle suspension movement. Reported in units of inches-per-mile, the IRI describes how much total vertical movement a standard passenger vehicle’s body would experience if driven over a 1-mile segment of the subject pavement at 50 mph. IRI is useful for assessing overall pavement ride quality; a higher IRI value indicates a rougher road surface. A good IRI is less than 95 inches per mile while poor is over 170.
Various methods are used to measure the index, from simpler manual units to electronic systems. Contractors will receive a bonus if the IRI is within tolerances specified in the contract documents. Different types of roads have different requirements depending on location, number of lanes and traffic count.
The reason I mention this is that as competent model builders we can improve the contractor’s chance of getting their IRI bonus. When value engineering is allowed, or the job is a design/build, we can adjust the profiles and super elevated curve sections to make machine control better. We are talking about precise adjustments in parameters to improve the surface. All roads need to be in specified tolerances. When there is some latitude allowed, we can make things better.
The way a model is built plays a big part in making a road turn out smooth. Using an older program like Terramodel and then converting that into an xml surface will cause problems that will never be worked out in the machine control’s attempts to get things right.
To create a model that can be properly read by machine control starts with a road job, meaning alignments and templates. Native software can easily make sense of these elements and go a long way in producing great roads when using the same brand of machine control as the software.
Paving Only Models
We have a lot of clients that are performing paving only, weather asphalt or white paving. They are going to be paid for a specified thickness of material over the base. The easiest thing for them to do is trim the base with an elevation dial down. This allows final checks of the lower priced base then the finish will be parallel to the stone.
When another contractor is doing the subbase, things can get complicated.
- Do they use machine control, is it the same brand?
- They may rely on stringline.
- What tolerance are they held to for base? (This can cause issues with minimum depth requirements.)
In these situations, we work hard to get everybody on the same page. Yes, it can get as difficult as it sounds. We stay on top of things and eventually help the job to get on track. The last thing anybody needs is finger pointing when the job is not correct.
When performing paving we need to add a place outside the paved area for the machine to smoothly follow the road profile. This track grade needs to be included as a separate model to subgrade elevation.
An average horizontal distance is 5-feet. When building this, we must be careful with stepped subgrades and super elevation transitions. These complicate things and call for special procedures. The result must be a smooth extension of the roadbed, so the paver does not jump or make exaggerated corrections.
When paving is done, the work needs to be covered up and normal shoulder and grading slopes will need to be made. This requires a different model to show how things will look when finished. Any road job starts with templates that represent the finished work. When we get things to final condition, we can now do dial-downs for subgrades, edges, and slopes. Multiple models make things more difficult for the field. Make sure everybody is on the same page. The best way to accomplish this is to have one person in charge of loading machines and rovers.
As I mentioned, we start with a complete model from catch to catch. This means we are intercepting the existing ground with the correct slopes and transitions. A different model will eventually go to the paving sub, but when we start with a complete model there is no doubt how the individual pieces will fit.
- The most critical component are the driving lanes. Make sure all elements are correct and correspond to the plans. We see differences in COGO math with alignments all the time. It is up to the model builder to get things correct, even if the math seems a bit off. This could be an entire post on its own.
- On roads with curbs, attention needs to be made to the base under the curb. Many plans are drawn with intricate steps and slope changes. You may find out later that “we just do it this way” simplifies the job. Check with the stake holders to confirm. We might make an intricate model that has to be redone and simplified based on local value engineering.
- Side slopes are typically easy. You may find special fill materials being used for improving erosion resistance. Be careful of your trigonometry when calculating the actual depth of the material. This stuff is usually expensive, and you do not want to waste it.
Slope Stake Reports
Whether it is for the field to use, or a requirement of the job, slope stakes can be a big help when used properly. The biggest advantage is the ability to use non-guided machinery to do most of the heavy lifting. When things get close, machine control can get it right on the money. Producing these reports is not difficult when using the software used to make the initial model. This is another reason we start with a complete daylight model. Slope stake reports are just a few mouse clicks.
For reporting options, we always default to what the contractor and surveyor on the job are used to. Remember, it is easy to customize reporting in the office and difficult to try and rethink an unfamiliar format in the field.
In the early days of machine control, we were lucky to have everything working at the same time. Hardware and firmware needed a lot of work and seemed to get worse with upgrades. Those of us who got past the tough times now have keen insight into how to trouble shoot hardware, firmware, and data models. When the bugs got worked out, we started to look ahead and really leverage the technology. In this installment, I will go over what we are able to do with data for subdivisions. Many of these ideas come from clients wanting to do more with their gear and trying to get the best from our modeling capabilities.
Basic Subdivision Models
It all starts with a model that represents the streets, pads, and common areas to required finish condition. By this I mean that depending on the scope, it may be street paving and curbs or rough grade if all they are doing is dirt.
The difficult thing about subdivisions is that we are working on a lot of corridors and intersections, and they all need to work together to make water do what we need for homeowners to drive safely. Nobody wants to scrape their spoiler on a steep dip or go airborne on a bump. These details should be sorted by the time the plans get to us but there can be issues that need addressing. We can catch issues during data production and let our client and the engineers know before a bad idea gets paved. Here are basic subdivision deliverables.
• Streets to finish, subgrade, or gut section (more on that later).
• Streets need to be done to plan/profile and template. We then drop them on plan view and clean the intersections.
• Pads to their finish grade condition. This may be flat, sloped or stepped for walk out basements.
• Common and retention areas to finish. We may also include a subgrade for retentions if there is a liner or filler material to go in. This could also be sod.
• Some large lot sites do not get graded pads. We usually do a 3:1 cut/fill slope to native so the custom home can grade as they see fit.
• Utilities are optional and with housing, there are a lot of connections. This is a great data tool to use in the field.
For a long time, we were doing some cool stuff with housing. After the 2008 crash, the market came to a speeding crawl causing many of the forward-thinking people in the field to pursue different areas, and some never got back to doing houses. When things started to bounce back around 2012, housing was new to many people. Yes, we are still moving dirt but some of the tricks we used in the past to make things faster were new to the fresh crop of housing contractors.
The Gut Section
Many times, we are asked to build several different models for the streets. With top of native and possibly subgrade surfaces, we also build gut section models. This allows the contractor to rough grade for streets leaving room for the utility spoils to be used in place to get the job to top of native.
The red line represents the gut section. After the utilities are installed, the remaining dirt will be used to get the job to top of native. Note there is subgrade as well as paving shown here. Using this approach reduces the movement of dirt as well as speeding up the process.
When doing large cuts and fills on a site using scrapers or haul trucks, good smooth roads are beneficial. Here is how we look at and build haul roads.
• Look at cut/fill regions. Connect large cut to fill areas to make transfer easier.
• As much as possible, use existing streets and connect them with custom haul roads that connect to the design profile grades so you are building road subgrade at the same time you are hauling.
• Produce machine control models for the haul road/finish street combination.
• Grade these on a regular basis to optimize the speed of equipment and keep stated cycle times.
• The roads often run through areas that are to be restored native or park areas. Verify you can do a topo of the area for returning to previous after your work is done.
• Sometimes we build a road on existing ground conditions to start. As dirt is added/removed, the crews dial down/up to grade the road. We have done three or four iterations of the profile for big cut/fill jobs.
The reason for these proposed basic rules is that many jobs were looked at like a site. Regions made from large cut areas and moved to large fills. When you utilize the finished street alignments you get a head start on them as well as leaving most of the pads alone to be completed early so crews can stay busy.
Installing underground utilities requires a bit of planning but has become a real time saver in the field. We are now working on sites that are expensive to build on because of the large amounts of required dirt moving. None of us want to dig more than necessary so I got an idea. Why not install underground utilities before all the fill is done? Apologies for the poor example but I just could not find a recent set of plans with huge fill.
• Let us assume the minimum cover for the lines is three feet.
• In large fill areas, there may be 20 feet of dirt that needs to go in.
• We run calculations on areas where the storm and/or sanitary have more than three feet of cover.
• We build a “utility base fill” model.
• This model gives you three feet of fill in the utility areas.
• You can now do minimal fill, trench, and place pipe.
• When complete, the fill goes on as usual with compacted lifts as required in the engineering reports.
This works for different projects, not just housing. When you encounter large fill areas, keep this in mind. When using multiple surface models, be sure everyone is on the correct page. Things can get out of control quickly when there are mixed messages in the field. This is where the field person responsible for loading machines and data collectors are required to be on top of things.
We all want all jobsite data available to us in a grading model. I have always contested that 10 minutes at the computer is about 30 minutes in the field balled up in the truck with a calculator. We do as much as is requested for a job, but we will also not waste your money when it’s not cost effective or better to be done in the field. In this offering, we look at both scenarios to show what a good model and related details can look like.
It’s good to have detailed information on the areas of a project that are slated for removal. However, we need to be careful because the quality of the information can cause more problems than cures. The first step is to get the CAD files from the existing conditions and send them to the field for comparison. If the 2D linework is an exact match, it would then be okay to let the work get to the field for demolition. Keep in mind, this only works for what is visible. I try not to trust the sub-surface drawing data and usually exclude it. We have seen too many pipes that do not follow a straight line and are broken when digging.
What to trust? Always be careful when supplying existing conditions to the field
Now that we have a solid trust in the plans for demolition, what is the procedure and deliverables?
- 2D linework initially goes to the field for verification.
- Take point shots to confirm plan views.
- 3D points will help to update the demolition plans.
- Be aware of amounts and locations for demolition. If something is missed, now is the time to document and get a change order started.
- Incorporate the 3D shots into your demolition file.
- Update the existing utility locations as you go along. They will be part of the as-builts.
There will be some confusion as to what constitutes a model and what is extra and may not be needed. For sites, I have seen just building pads and retention areas. The model builder for the contractor thought it was best to work out the parking lot in the field. When we are asked to do “the usual stuff” for a civil site, here is what you will get:
- All pads to requested grade. Some people like finish slab height while others want top of stone base.
- Retentions to requested grade. There will sometimes be liners, clay or topsoil added later so we might do a retention subgrade.
- Parking lot to finished grade. We use finished grade in the model for two reasons; it’s easy to dial down to subgrade and when you need to reference plans for grades you avoid possible math errors to guess subgrade. It is also easier to offset the parking lot slope to grade 2-feet behind back of curb for a machine to pour.
- Curb layout can be lines and/or points at top back of curb as well as offsets. More on that later.
- Offsites are a wildcard. If we get grades for deceleration lanes and approaches, we will enter them. Usually, we will want some existing grade shots to confirm. This is important when there is a sawcut and we need to make a lane, gutter, and curb to flow correctly.
- Utilities are an option. We provide surface inlets, grates, and manholes but pipe and structures can be added for contractors who self-perform.
With this information the contractor can get a job to the point of completion while working with a surveyor. All information should be available to the engineers, surveyors, and forward-thinking municipalities. We often send out different file types for various programs used by those other than our client.
I usually find that when contractors get comfortable with this technology, they start thinking beyond the basic model. I have always tried to leverage the power we now have. With that, we are always able to improve the use of GPS and related equipment to make things quicker and reduce re-work. The options that follow are a welcome sight to an experienced user. New users will feel like they are drinking from the fire hose. Be cautious when getting new users up to speed. A more basic surface model and less linework can make the process easier.
I need to caution the reader here. With additional information comes added responsibility. When you leave the basic model and start adding on, this results in extra layers, more surfaces, and various points files. All this needs to be managed and kept current. Before stepping off and getting into these weeds, make sure you have file flow dialed in.
- Every surface and linework file must have a date. It makes it easier to identify the most current information is being used.
- Use a cloud-based service for field files. Set it to notify involved parties that new files are available. This makes it easy to know when new files arrive. Without this setting, remote workers waste time checking the folders or could potentially use outdated information.
- Have one person in the office be responsible for updating. They will also keep the field in touch with changes and next steps.
When doing added work, it’s sometimes easier to just make a new surface. Here are some examples:
- A large excavation for a basement or underground parking. We will often build ramps and haul roads for mass excavation. This allows the haul roads to be cleaned on a regular basis for high-speed scrapers. Smooth ramps and roads save beat up machines.
- Pad blowups. If there are a lot of sidewalk and grading details near a building, we will build a separate surface for a pad. This red line shows where the 5-foot blowup will go for the building. There are a lot of bump-outs on the slab and it will actually be built as simply as possible. We will make a surface to reflect this. It also provides the contractor with the amount of rock and select fill as they now have the square footage of the enlarged pad area.
- Retentions with specific subgrades usually need another surface. The reason is that the final size is critical and often these have steps in the subgrade but need to be smooth for finish.
- The job here had a deeper subgrade in the botton than the sides. It would have been difficult to just make a finished grade model or only a subgrade. Always look at the time it takes to do a quick in-progress model as opposed to having to work things out in the field.
Whenever we are asked to do curb offsets, there needs to be a clear idea what we are after for production. Here are the options we usually perform.
- Additional layout line. This is a Top Back of Curb (TBC) line we add to a model for layout. The offset allows the contractor to know the height of the TBC without having to disturb the actual curb location. This is good for setting stringline and installing hanging forms.
- Top Back of Curb (TBC) Surface. We will make an additional surface that represents the TBC elevation and a specified offset. This allows the field to walk (usually 3-feett) wide surface that is the TBC elevation for layout and checking. Always make this a separate surface, otherwise it will make a mess of the grading model if you don’t.
- Layout points. We provide 3D so we can layout the curve PC, PT, and radius points. Also provided are points along the straight lines for grade checking and string setup.
There are a lot more things that can be done with a little imagination. Look for more ideas in the upcoming blog articles. We do a lot of specialty work that may help you someday.
Several of my recent blog articles have been on data collection and use. Many readers have responded with the same questions. With data coming at me like a fire hose, how do I safely store and retrieve it? Being married to a professional landscape photographer, I learned years ago about putting large amounts of data in a safe place for future use. One advantage we have is that all our data may not need to be saved forever and a post job purge can reduce overall usage.
I will talk about different data storage methods and their advantages. I will not name companies. A search of product and service types will give you a wide range of options. When working on a project, some of the files will be kept on your local machine. To be proficient after some operation(s) are performed, you can move files to a remote location to stop your computer from slowing down.
Do what you need when a project is ongoing. In some cases, we dedicate a hard drive to a project and then store it after the project is completed. Hard drives can range from 100 megabytes to over 10 terabytes. Disk size for hard disk drives (HDD) can be over 20 terabytes at a reasonable price. Here are the best practices for desk side storage.
- Have a large (2TB+) solid state drive (SSD) for Windows and other programs.
- Have a second solid state drive for file storage. We have added multiple SSD’s for expanded storage. Prices are low and performance is required for data modeling and photogrammetry.
- Keep things on the drive as the project goes along. Remote storage is good, but a lot of files may need to be brought back to the SSD’s to do some more work.
I have not mentioned backup of your local machine yet. We will cover local (somewhere you can get to easily) and cloud backups. Remote backup is also another option.
The easiest way to make sure things are safe is to back up your hard drive and put it in a fire safe. A process that is time consuming and prone to forgetfulness. I do not recommend this as there are other solutions.
Network Attached Storage (NAS)
NAS is the easiest way to grab something, work on it, then put it away safely. As the name implies, you have a large amount of storage that is connected to your network. It is a drive that is labeled as a letter, I use “N” for simplicity. The drive itself acts as a small computer with a disk array for redundancy in case of partial failure. Transfer speeds are generally good making it easy to retrieve and save data. There are other benefits as well.
Another NAS drive can be placed offsite, giving you added protection in the event of complete destruction of one of the locations or its drive. I did this for our firm years ago and had a host of issues getting things set up. There are a number of independent consultants who will do this in a matter of minutes and it is well worth the money. Here is a road map.
- Find a technician to set up a NAS. The brand you buy will depend on what the technician recommends.
- Decide on the amount of storage you want. The technician can help with that.
- You will get two NAS drives. One will go in the office, the other in a remote location that has a fast internet connection.
- Both drives will start out in the office, the initial large data transfer will be easier that way.
- The drives are synced and tested while in one location, this makes troubleshooting easier.
- The second drive goes to the remote location.
- Drives can be set to back up continuously or at a specified time, usually early morning hours when no bandwidth is being consumed
This peace of mind is critical in securing your data information. Also make sure that important accounting data and correspondence gets saved from other staffers and departments in the office. The cost for this is less than you may think, and you can avoid sad stories of lost data and ransomware.
Whenever I mention the possibility of using cloud backup, I often get a response related to security. First, platforms like Dropbox are secure and second, the plans and files you are saving are usually public domain if somebody wants to look them up. How tragic is it if somebody sees the CAD for a subdivision anyway? The exception I will agree is sensitive correspondence, financial information, and most internal communication. Use the NAS for that and trust the rest online. Here is the process.
- Decide on the platform and storage limits. Prices can vary widely so shop around. Security is similar with most so do not let that be an issue.
- Decide on what to sync. I use the sync folder as local access as well because the data resides locally and is mirrored to the cloud.
- Depending on your connection to the internet, you can choose to continually update or pick a specified time. This is usually in the early morning hours when you are hopefully not working, and speeds are good.
- A dashboard for the program will keep you posted with the status of a sync.
This easy solution may be the best option due to the protracted setup of a NAS. If you have followed along to this point, there is still the possibility of accounting and correspondence not being saved. Do not delay the install of a NAS too long.
Purging Stored Data
We never really get rid of information completely. After a time, we save a distillation of information and lock it away. You may also want to check with your attorney as to how long they feel you should have full saves as opposed to the reduced density mentioned. Here are some examples.
- Regarding machine control data, we save the latest file we made in the native software and the last files sent to the field. The pdf’s can be saved as well. Sometimes if they are huge, we will strip out pages outside our scope. Remember they are generally available at the agency responsible for approvals. Let them warehouse it. We do not need the original CAD files.
- Photogrammetry jobs get saved as the point cloud and GEO-tiff. Raw images and initial surface production can go away. With the point cloud we can generate what is necessary in case we need to go back. That will save a ton of space.
- Takeoffs can usually be the program file we used for the numbers. No reports need to be saved as you can run them again. We save the pdf sheets associated with the takeoff as well.
- Job notes and correspondence can get saved in total. They are almost always copies of emails and letters that take up little room. I have spent more time than it is worth trying to decide what should stay and the space saved is minimal.
Well, there you have it. A comprehensive plan for saving and securing data. The pandemic has changed everything and many of you are working at home and need access like as if you were in your office. When I started this company, we all worked remote and were on the cutting (painful) edge of a lot of the previously mentioned technologies. Things have gotten much simpler and integrating some or all these ideas will give you a piece of mind. There are a lot of horror stories out there regarding lost or stolen data. Hopefully, you will not be one of them.
Disclaimer: This article does not contain health and safety protocols.
For years we talked about remote jobsite access where we could check a project’s progress by viewing live feeds from cameras and machine sensors. The mining industry has embraced this and my experience in this area will guide my thoughts and recommendations in this offering.
I will go through the COVID-19 workflow and outline some areas that you may want to invest in. These improvements will not be abandoned when the crisis passes but instead become necessary upgrades. When upgrading machines and software there might be components for the machine that need to be purchased. With the machinery improvements, the addition of software is required but not as cost intensive as upgrading machines.
Yes, I am going to mention the need for a good topo which results in a good takeoff. Drone flights can be done safely with results returned to the office. What about a site inspection? You’ll want to get a look at the job and get a feel for it. That is the art of estimating – we leave the good dirt numbers we create using software and look at what it will take to make things happen.
Drone Flight Basics
- Get the crew out and set control points for an aerial topo.
- Fly with a drone to get nadir imagery for conversion to a point cloud.
- Verify the quality of the data in the field.
- Reconfigure the drone to a gimbaled camera forward and down view. This gives an angle to see elevated items visually and not rely on the point cloud.
- Fly two different patterns.
- Run the “lawnmower strips” but lower and with the camera at the described angle.
- Free fly to get specific areas that may need closer scrutiny. Go all around stands of trees, old buildings, and stockpiles as you would do on a site visit.
- Process the drone point cloud as usual.
- Using the ortho image of the job, make notes regarding the detail flights such as where they started and ended. A dotted line of a special flight will help the user get oriented quicker.
- Rename the special flights and correspond the name to the legend on the map.
- Have someone review the files you submit without explanation. After a few jobs you will be able to present a takeoff topo to the estimator that needs no further explanation.
Not to go off into the weeds regarding proposals, but these times have created some special demands. Many of our clients are putting in disclaimers and questions in the bid for further clarification. We have even seen “if/then” line items so the owner knows what to expect if the pre job images could not tell the entire story.
Once the job has been won, it’s time to go to the field. Here are some ideas to consider.
The job trailer may be a thing of the past. Nobody can really go in so all it becomes is storage. Consider a smaller windowless container instead. With site visits being reduced, we need a way to communicate and keep everyone in the loop.
We have had to make a quick shift from in person meetings to all remote interaction. This brings up a host of new challenges.
People need to see what is being done. Set up shareable folders online to give the right people access. Here is how this changes what gets shared.
- Limit the ability of users to post files to your collection. Too many people adding documents can make a mess.
- Use a separate folder for input from those outside your work group. Review the added file and keep it there or put it in the main slipstream for others to review and comment.
- Turn off update notices. Doing this at the start will disable sub-folders as well. When something big has changed, let those that will be affected know.
- Get file structure sorted before the project begins. You can waste hours looking for something in a rat’s nest of file trees and sub-folders. Yes, there will be a lot of files. They are usually updating to base versions. There can be a lot of folders with new and old files available to review. Maintain the dates for these folders but keep the structure and hierarchy.
Now that we are all virtual, there are some things that must change for things to keep moving smoothly.
- Learn how to use your conferencing platform. Know how to mute, operate your video, and change backgrounds.
- Learn how to get your face to look correct. Take a moment to review your video feed and learn what light looks good.
- When using a cell signal for conferencing, things can get slow and you may miss a lot of dialog. Turn off your video to improve audio reception.
- Have ONE person run the meeting. Weekly meetings should have the same person and agenda; yes it will change but keep the structure consistent.
- The worst thing with remote meetings is everybody talking at once. To get over this, we have used raise hands, chat in a speak request or question, and going around the screen for comment or pass.
- Virtual meetings do not have the same impact of in-person. After every meeting, somebody needs to distribute notes as to who said what and what happened so it can be reviewed and commented on.
- Never have a meeting that could have been an email. How do you avoid this? Send out the item(s) as an email first. If there is too much comment or lack of agreement, then it gets to go to a meeting.
Simple change orders are no longer simple. Usually there is a site meeting, and the problem is hashed out. We have helped clients with this issue and there are steps to take that will help reduce the hassle. Start in the field, then move the information to the office.
- Just like with the takeoff, images will be the key to stating your case.
- Drone and ground video with narration done in the office are worth a million words.
- Collect topo data if needed.
- Take a narrated cell phone video to explain the details to the office so the presentation is clear.
- With field data in hand, start to build a story that walks through the problem and proposed changes.
- Always propose an answer.
- Go through the data provided by the field and create the story. Bullet the high points to help with the steps of toe issue and a fix.
- Talk to the field people in an online meeting to verify you have the details right.
- Have the field collect any additional information needed to clarify things.
- Now is the time to make the short, clear story for a person who has not been on the site to feel like they are.
- Images and video with narration as well as the text of the narration included as a Word document are key.
- Send the information back to the field and have them review. If it makes sense to them, you are good to go.
- Do not schedule a meeting! Send the data to the parties involved for them to review and if there are too many questions or issues, then go to a meeting.
- Use their questions and concerns to improve your template for subsequent presentations.
- After a few of these, you will be quick and concise.
Nothing that I have mentioned will die with COVID-19. When we come through this, the ease of performing these ideas that I’ve outlined will continue to live on.
Upgrading machines to generate topo data as well as dirt movement is something worth looking into. I will cover this in a future offering.
Do not be concerned about the software expense and additional training. As you may know, we conduct our business remotely and have been employing these tools for years because we do not live near any of our jobs. From a quick markup of plans on Bluebeam, or a complete presentation with information provided by our client, we make difficult subjects clear.
Start doing this with small items to get your list in order. On larger issues, follow the same playbook and watch how easily and quickly things come together.
Many of our customers find that capturing images during the life of a project is useful. In this article, I will discuss the options available for processing images.
There are two options for image processing and surface generation – do it yourself or pay someone else. I will go over the good and bad associated with both options as well as a brief review of some platforms available.
When I started out in this industry, we did all of our own image processing. There were no options. My advantage was having a wife who is a professional photographer. She gave me guidelines for manual camera settings to improve image quality. Our results were nothing short of amazing. Once I knew how to set the camera, we experimented with different flight patterns and coverage to dial that in.
The survey aspects of getting good control, setting and shooting ground control, and adding check shots is procedural.
Tips While Shooting in Field:
- Control needs to be established, regardless of who processes the data.
- Make sure the scale factor is between 1.0000 and .9999 for accurate data.
- There is no established rule for the number of GCP’s (Ground Control Points) set. In flat areas, I may set one (1) per acre and hilly sites two (2) or three (3).
- While walking from one control point to another, take topo shots for use later.
- When your partner is flying a drone, walk around and shoot more topo points.
- Make sure to occupy the GCP’s for enough time. Accuracy is key.
- Topo shots can be quick.
- Use the best camera available for your platform. Make sure the lens is clean.
- Be sure to check the images in the field before you leave.
- Time of day and cloud cover have a big impact on image quality. Sometimes you will need to wait for better conditions.
Overlap and flight lines are a bit of an art. Start with recommended numbers from the software provider. For example, Pix4D has different overlap specs for general dirt operations, dense vegetation, and corridors. Do not just run out and do 90% frontal and 90% side overlap “just to be sure.” You will waste time and processing will not be better than lower numbers.
Back at the office, work is a balance of hurry up then wait.
Steps to Take in Office:
- Transfer images from the camera memory cards to your computer.
- Batch process images if necessary (more on this later).
- Import images into your software, as well as GCP’s.
- Mark ground control on imported images.
- Processing frequency varies by vendor. Assume 2 or 3 long processing waits while you do something else on another computer.
- Invest in a high-quality standalone computer for photogrammetry. You will not be sorry. Your vendor will have recommended components. Do not skimp on any of them.
- Go through the required steps to get a surface.
- Review and verify the surface. The person(s) who flew the site should be there for review of the model. They can help with initial review and help to define out of tolerance areas.
- Bring in your topo points and compare them to the surface. Confirm tolerance.
- Filter the surface density to get what you need for comparison.
When the data processing is complete, I will want to keep the surface large. The reason is I like the way takeoff data software allows me to make a hybrid surface to get detail with a smaller file size. In most cases, a 10 or 20-foot grid will work. Carlson has a feature that allows a point to be added at a horizontal distance and/or a vertical change in order to get tops and toes of slopes as well as small channels or berms that get missed in a grid. Either way, there is no need to use a huge file size where a smaller one does the same thing. I have done testing. Try for yourself and you will find the balance as well.
When exporting a surface to be sent to others, here are a couple tips.
- Send them the same surface density you are using.
- An XML TIN is fine. Older software can use that TIN file saved as DXF triangles.
This may seem like over-information, but I need to mention these details as it has saved us on many occasions. Adobe’s Lightroom can batch process images to make edits to all of them at the same time. In other words, if something is wrong with the images you captured, you may be able to be correct them using the program.
- Underexposure due to cloudy conditions is the toughest. It is hard to adjust lighting from dark to light, however I have been able to improve flights by processing.
- When in doubt, overexpose your images. It is easier to bring down contrast.
- Sharpening can help, but usually causes problems. Best to get good sharpness from initial camera settings then try to adjust afterward.
The biggest issue is the fact that this represents another software to learn and a steep learning curve. As a professional who does a lot of this, it is just another software expense that saves us or a client another long trip to a site that may have changed drastically since we were last out there. In cases where the site is remote and you got there on a bad day, this option can make things work. Something to keep in mind if you start doing a lot of photogrammetry.
Using a Service Provider
The easiest way to get a surface from a flight is to upload the images to an online processing provider. There are several things to be aware of when doing this.
- Everything gets processed the same. Be certain you know the exact overlap and image quality the provider expects.
- They were not on the flight. Special instructions or interaction are not available. This prevents them from getting firsthand knowledge of the site to improve quality.
- Results vary. Sometimes the same set of images sent to the provider at different times yield different results.
- Turnaround time is going to vary.
- Some services do not allow you to download a surface. You can only use their online tools.
These are not a lot of negatives to the process. I like using a third party especially for interim topos of dirt progress. Here are more advantages:
- Click it and forget it. It is easy to get the images uploaded for results to come back.
- Surfaces are stored online reducing the need for additional storage space in your system.
- The online tools are great. Two useful tools include: sliders to see date changes to a surface and the ability to share with your client.
- These services are mature, and results should be consistent. As a test, you can rename a group of images and compare surfaces.
- You will fly your drone more if you know that someone else is doing the processing.
There are a lot of online services available. Both Trimble and Carlson have their own, with a lot of independents vying for your business. Here are some tips for selecting one:
- Do not be tied to the service offered by your software. Look at it but consider others. The interface is usually a macro that automates some easy steps.
- Prices vary widely. You will find everything from pay per megabyte to unlimited. Be sure you know what you are getting before committing.
- Image size and overlap may be an issue so check their requirements. If they want a large overlap and you are paying for file size this can skew pricing significantly.
- It is difficult for a provider to promise turnaround times. A trial can help you to see how efficient they are.
- Online tools are important. Look for the ones that suit you best. Some sites are geared to mines, others to corridors. The surface and calculation features differ. Pick one that works for you.
I have found the best results are when I can process in-house and then send data to a good provider. I can take care of the parts that need special attention and basic dirt numbers can go outside.
You need to be careful here. Never mix the service and your work without a baseline. Here is how to do this:
- Gather the images. If your settings are different from the provider, you will need to make two flights.
- Process your surface and send the images out for a surface.
- Anytime you fly and process, only compare to your other work.
- Never do a quantity verification mixing the two.
- If you must mix, do a report of the recent outsourced surface to your new flight. Send the images out as well. Do a volume calculation and note the differences to adjust any subsequent work to be done on them.