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Smart Infrastructure | Thames flood defences

Team2100 dukeshorewharf repairwork revfinal

Heavy investment in data collection, whole-life cost assessments and long term planning are key to the Thames Estuary Asset Management 2100 (TEAM 2100) approach.

More than £200bn worth of property and 1.25M residents lie within the 350km² Thames Estuary floodplain.

Surveys of public attitudes to flood risk show nobody is really all that concerned. And that is testament to more than 4,000 individual Environment Agency flood defence assets.

But these assets, including walls, embankments, flood gates, pumping stations, outfalls and major barriers on the River Thames and its tributaries, are under threat. Millimetre by millimetre each year sea levels rise due to climate change, along with the increased likelihood and severity of storm surges.

Team2100 queenborough3dmodel revfinal

Team2100 queenborough3dmodel revfinal

3D Model of the planned refurbishment of the Queenborough Creek Barrier

To counter this threat, the Environment Agency has launched a 10 year programme of refurbishing and replacing its flood defence assets as part of a strategy set out in its Thames Estuary 2100 report, published in 2012.

Starting in November 2014, the first 10 years of the Team 2100 mission have been awarded to an integrated delivery team of programme manager CH2M and the Environment Agency, with construction partner Balfour Beatty and other suppliers.

The budget has been set at £308M, including £100M in efficiencies over the 10 years. “So it’s a £408M programme that needs to be delivered,” says TEAM2100 programme director Matthew Kuhn. He adds that the team is on target, budget-wise, for the 2025 handover.

Understanding the assets

In its two and half years so far, TEAM2100 has focused on gaining an understanding of the assets and undertaking engineering investigations on more than 400 of them. Investigations, appraisals, detailed designs and construction has occurred, focusing on continuing maintenance and essential improvements.

One example is the 30-year old Thames Barrier, which has received its largest ever investment programme in the past two years. But sometime later this century, larger measures will be needed, including a major new barrier.

Gaining an understanding of the assets is key. And this comes from data capture and management, which is also where big leaps come in innovation and efficiencies, says Kuhn.

I’d imagine eventually you’ll get to the stage where a ‘smart estuary’ tells you when it’s not very well

Matthew Kuhn, Team2100

One example is the Estuary Eye, an all-enveloping web-based geographic information system that provides a bird’s-eye visualisation of the entire 175km-long floodplain, from Teddington weir in the west to Sheerness/Shoeburyness in the east. Data collected, including high quality drone video is tagged on a digital map, with the aim of keeping it usable five, 50 and 100 years from now. Essentially it’s like a building information model of a river.

“Originally a lot of hard copy documents existed, based on geotechnics, as-builts,” says Kuhn.

“One of the first things we did was to scan those documents and reference them to a particular asset so that when you move forward into appraisal and design, you’ve got all the information on that asset.” Now, anybody, anywhere, with internet access can find information on any asset, as long as it has been logged on the Eye.

Field work

When it comes to new data being created, when the team goes out into the field, there are tablet computers, rather than pen and paper. Using voice memos and pictures, software automatically creates reports, then geo-tags them, making them available later on the Eye.

“If you think of writing those reports, putting photos in boxes around text… If each of these takes three or four days, on just 400 assets, that’s 1,600 days freed up,” says Kuhn.

More sophisticated  data capture methods have been used across the estuary, but this depends on the criticality of the asset, he adds. For example, the Thames Barrier might require straightforward, reliable, physical inspections. But somewhere less critical, such as Hackney Marshes in east London, has provided an ideal opportunity to trial the latest in sensor technology.

Sensor trials

“We’re been trialling different types of sensors, to see what sort of data we get. The tier 2 and 3 companies have got some amazing technology, that you literally attach and press ‘on’ and they’re streaming data straight to your phone.

“So it’s real time information, just like what national grid or water companies might get.”

But how is the data made useful? To begin with, a series of specific tools have been developed, based around such metrics as water level, breach volume, asset performance, asset deterioration and whole life cost.

Kuhn says it has been important to keep these tools separate, at least initially. “What we’ve found on the programme is that one tool that tries to do everything – cost, carbon, risk, etcetera – becomes unmanageable. So rather than one big tool that does everything, we’ve created a series of specific tools, and then… tie the results together. So then if we need to make changes on any one tool, it’s quite easy to do.”

Investment aids

These tools can then be run together, providing different scenarios on residual flood risk.

“In a nutshell, they’re tools to help you decide where, when and how to invest.”

New Civil Engineer was invited to TEAM 2100 headquarters in Westminster to see how this works in practice.

Showing a series of particularly colourful looking graphs, Kuhn says: “We can run a model that asks ‘If we let it get to the lowest grade before replacing, what does that programme look like?’

“And it provides a graphical representation. What you end up with is assets deteriorating for the first 10 to 15 years, then 30% to 40% of your assets are rebuilt within a few years. That might be very expensive.

Higher grade replacement

“And then we run a different model – what if we replace the assets at a higher grade? That shows a much smoother transition, spending less over a wider period.”

TEAM2100 is keen to emphasise that these types of innovation are coming by way of big changes to ways of working and culture across its 150 public and private sector staff, including the collaborative ISO55000 model, and innovation portals inspired by those employed during Crossrail.

“Some from the Environment Agency have been dealing with the assets for 20 years and have that historical expertise of how the asset works.

“ That helps in knowing what sort of innovations we can try and what might be successful,” says TEAM 2100 service manager Helena Henao-Fernandez.

Keeping up to speed

“Being surrounded by cutting edge tools forces you to keep up with the speed of developments. Because we are very committed and integrated, we all do keep up to speed.”

Henao-Fernandez says TEAM 2100 is in itself its own pilot scheme, where systems are constantly tested, with even the 10 year timeline up for future debate.

“We are confident that this 10 year programme is giving us the opportunity to carry out different iterations for each task, then we know we can improve them through new technology and experience.”

Further into the future, new technology might involve artificial intelligence and robotics, which will feed off the work already done on smart sensors and data.

Robotic inspections

“As an example, a lot of the flood gates, such as those on the Thames Barrier, are hollow. And what you need to do is get inside them, see if there’s corrosion and if there is, repaint them or install cathodic protection. It’s a hot, dark, slippery and dangerous place to work. So we’re looking what sort of robots could be out there, or developed,” says Kuhn.

“It might not be something we manage to crack in the 10 years but there might be a company out there that can develop a robot to save us millions of pounds per year on inspections.”

And eventually, possibly for Team 2100, if self-healing concrete or steel emerge, could we even see an organic system that senses, thinks and repairs itself?

“I’d imagine eventually you’ll get to the stage where a ‘smart estuary’ tells you when it’s not very well; a bit like a car, that flags you when it’s not running at peak efficiency,” says Kuhn.


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