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Drones | Eyes in the sky for highways engineers

M27 drone picture1.5

The days of road closures and hazardous topographical survey work could soon be over.

The motorways and trunk roads authority has worked with tech start-up Sensat over the past year to generate the first high resolution digital models of UK highways, generated via autonomous mapping drones.

Attention is currently centred on Hampshire, where Highways England has brought in SenSat to generate a full 3D model of the M27 smart motorways scheme as part of its push towards rapid engineering modelling (REM).

M27 mapp picture1.5 copy

M27 mapp picture1.5 copy

Junction 11 of the M2 as a densified point cloud of over 1.78bn XYZ measurements

Highways England wants to completely automate the design of its smart motorways routes, the aim being to “design a motorway in a day”. It asked SenSat to create a dataset that would integrate directly with the REM, a cornerstone of automated digital design.

These integrations are made easier by generating outputs that are in the computer’s language as standard, unlike traditional surveys. The outputs of REM give design teams more data than ever before, giving them better insights into the effects of design decisions.

By using the digital terrain model, they can calculate cut and fill measurements. They can also analyse visual lines of site by using a 3D mesh or point cloud, reducing project costs and also, ultimately, improving the quality and user experience of the highway.

Having a digital copy of the world around us allows us to measure quicker, calculate more accurately and plan in ways that were simply not possible two years ago

James Dean, SenSat

It is pretty amazing and SenSat chief executive James Dean oozes enthusiasm.

“Having a digital copy of the world around us is incredibly useful,” he says. “It allows us to measure quicker, calculate more accurately and plan in ways that were simply not possible even two years ago.”

To achieve these objectives, SenSat had to deliver a highly accurate survey at a lower cost than traditional means, without disrupting traffic flow.

By no means coincidentally, SenSat was well placed to do this. It already holds special permissions from the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) that allow its drones to fly over major highways – one of the  few companies to do so.

Quicker, safer and digital

Over the past year it has flown over 9,000km over live highways without incident on behalf of engineering clients, delivering tangible cost and time benefits in data capture. Aerial surveys are not only quicker and cheaper, they deliver the data in digital formats that the industry already uses.

SenSat has worked out that its surveys are 1,200 times quicker than traditional surveys and far, far more accurate – providing 15,000 times as many data points. Crucially, there is no need for physical access, reducing risks of accidents normally associated with work on live highways.

In addition, there is no need to spend time and money on traffic management and there is no disruption to customer journeys.

Once the data was collected it was loaded into SenSat’s Mapp app. And here it gets even cleverer, and really starts to make a difference.

A SenSat drone can go places a human simply cannot, offering a new, unique and safe approach to what we do

Jack Lomas, SenSat

As an example, a screenshot of the cloud based Mapp platform depicts Junction 11 of the M27. This densified point cloud consists of over 1.78bn accurate XYZ measurements.

The highway itself seems unusually quiet - in fact traffic was normal during the scan but the underlying process of photogrammetry “cleans” the model to remove moving objects like cars.

“Mapp is designed to be intuitive to use, boost productivity and allow all project members to engage with a digital copy of their world,” says Sensat chief executive Jack Lomas.

If all that is not impressive enough, there is more.

In September, the government announced a pathfinder programme to test and trial ways that drones can be applied commercially to drive technology adoption in the UK.

The aim is to allow drones to be safely and efficiently flown beyond the visual line of sight, enabling their full technological potential to be realised.

This programme will involve drones flying up to the technological limit, which currently stands at 200km, compared to the current legal limit which is 500m from the pilot.

SenSat has been picked as the infrastructure pathfinder partner, with partners Costain, the CAA, the Department for Transport and the Transport Catapult.

It makes SenSat the only company in the UK which is approved to fly drones beyond the visual line of sight within civil engineering and infrastructure. It will retain this permission for three to five years.

These are exciting times. “We believe technology will shape the future of efficient working,” enthuses Lomas.  “We believe in innovation in sustainability; collecting useful information that can help us make better, more informed decisions for a future of sustainable growth.

“Technology should also help reduce workplace risk, making our working environments safer.

“A SenSat drone can go places a human simply cannot, offering a new, unique and safe approach to what we do,” he says. N

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