By Dave Neitz, CIO, CDM Smith and Scott Brook, Innovation Team Manager, CDM Smith
Everybody is fascinated by the Internet of Things (IoT) lately, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in particular. But what’s the hype about? And what does it mean for businesses?
"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. Using predictive analytics, CDM Smith can add immediate value for our clients.
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.
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.
We can then map data 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
Because 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 find out that you can buy 125,000 transistors for the cost of a single grain of rice (Fortune 500).
With this technology so affordable, 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 impassible.
The first step to evolving your enterprise technology is to free up dollars and capacity for innovation and advancement, and work to-ward 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.
Implementing disruptive technologies including IoT, sensors, and UAVs can mean running businesses and operations in a complete-ly new way. To help integrate this technology seamlessly at CDM Smith, we have a team within our business technology group assigned to UAV service and delivery. And because this is a multidisciplinary challenge, we are working closely with our sales people, project managers, and marketing staff to create a real partnership as we adapt to changes. We meet monthly to discuss activities and plans, and our marketing team is creating an internal campaign to build awareness and understanding.
In the coming year, our steering committee for this group will implement an office tour, taking UAVs to our North America locations, in an effort to help demystify them. Meanwhile, we’re building a portal on our internal site that contains FAQs, collateral and training guidelines so that employees can also learn more about these changes on their own.
And for clients and other stakeholders, we continue to demonstrate the value in adopting new technology. We have worked with a dozen clients using UAVs, and we’re now trying to scale this service to meet increasing demand. Many in our field are already accepting this technology and looking to benefit from it. Like employees, clients are excited when they see how it expands our capabilities. We view IoT, sensor technology, and UAVs as tools augmenting engineering—just like we have in the past with computers, software and 3D modeling.
Like previous innovations, the success of this program relies on the talents of our engineers at CDM Smith, who will continue to develop and push the technology to the next level. They are the ones with the expertise to continue asking the question, “what if?”
We know this stage of IoT and sensor technology is just the beginning of the wave, and as an organization we want to be mature as we adapt, embed it in our culture and do that ahead of other companies—so we’re ready for the next wave.