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Look below the surface - On the international road map

Spotlight

The geophysical surveying industry is mature enough - at least in the highways sector - that UK firms can now export their expertise, according to Simon Brightwell, director of Aperio.

'We're finding a lot of interest overseas, based on a combination of the systems we've got and the fact that this country has far more non-destructive surveys on a larger scale than in other countries, ' he says.

Aperio has received a positive response from highway clients in Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, India, South Africa and New Zealand.

'Wherever we go people are doing non-destructive surveys, but certainly not on same scale as here, ' explains Brightwell.

He estimates that other European countries are in the position the UK was five or 10 years ago in terms of their understanding of geophysical surveying techniques.

He puts this down to a combination of the condition of the UK road network and the way the market has developed here.

'Engineers, local authorities and the Highways Agency have really taken up high speed, large scale surveys and companies like ours have developed systems to deal with it on an asset management basis, ' he says. 'We are used to collecting data on thousands of kilometres per day and reporting it in formats people can use - for example straight into their pavement management systems.

Also, the network in this country is so heavily used that there is more testing of the assets, which means more of an industry to get the data and feed the pavement management systems.

It puts us in a very strong position when we look further afield.'

Aperio has focused its overseas expansion on a mix of low risk ventures - such as the Irish market - with more challenging opportunities, including the massive Indian rail network. 'It is the biggest in the world and was built 150 years ago - which means many of the problems are very similar to those faced here when it comes to the condition of the structures. We are coming in with the credibility of our UK experience, and that means we can go straight onto the top table and get involved with the people who write the standards and advice notes.'

In the UK about a third of Aperio's work involves geophysical surveys of buildings and structures, much of it in the rail sector. For example, the company recently assessed 51 masonry tunnels in Network Rail's western area to locate buried construction shafts.

However, Brightwell believes there is still considerable scope for non-destructive methods of assessing the condition of railway track beds. The company has been developing systems which work at speeds up to 65km/h, and Brightwell says surveys could be carried out at 200km/h to identify areas of settlement or damage to the track bed.

'At the moment this kind of work is piecemeal, ' he says, 'but I think it will happen on a network or route basis in times to come.'

This would bring the company's work on the rail network in line with what it already does on the highways. Aperio is pushing to have its equipment mounted on the inspection vehicles that are being used to assess surface condition, looking for cracking, deflection or other surface defects. 'If the subsurface information is collected at the same time, it can be referenced to positioning information, which means a local authority can have the surface and subsurface data for a particular spot on the road, ' says Brightwell.

'It is exactly what they want.'

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