Connected and Safe, Above and Below

June 1, 2011

The construction industry is pulling in data display devices as big as notebooks and as small as cell phones, and using them to become more efficient on the job.

With ruggedized notebooks like Panasonic Toughbook 30 Plus and Dell Latitude XFR, among others, a contractor can bring the office to the pickup truck or just about anywhere to stay connected with workers, main office, and engineers to access information about the job site.

Made more specifically for construction operations, Trimble makes the TSC3, a handheld controller with built-in GPS, 3G, Wi-Fi, a 5 megapixel digital camera, and a 4.2-inch, sunlight-readable touchscreen display with ruggedized bumpers. The TSC3 controller can be used for standalone navigation and measurement purposes. And with Trimble’s Connected Site, information can flow to all those who need it at the same time, so there’s no need to make a bunch of phone calls each time there’s a change on a job.

Users can stay connected and be equipped with accurate positioning, digital design information, and the ability to locate, measure, and record information anywhere on the construction site with just one device.

iPADs and other tablet computers allow contractors to go online, access e-mail and documents, transfer files, and use calculating tools. PDAs (personal digital assistants) can be used for safety inspections and maintenance work. Durable, inexpensive, and very portable, they’re also used for calendars, task lists, and phone lists. A smart phone (basically a cell phone and PDA combined into one) also has a digital camera and voice recorder and can access e-mail and the web and transmit data files.

Cell phones can also be used as daily reporting tools. Rather than time-consuming written reports, a contractor can just make a phone call to NoteVault, talk into the cell phone, and dictate notes about safety, weather, delays, manpower, or change orders. Cell phone photos and videos can be added as well.

Messages are time-stamped, transcribed, and stored in NoteVault’s secure redundant data vaults. Users can review transcriptions online, download printable reports, and have daily construction report data posted directly into their project management software.

Maxwell Systems Inc. has an iPad application called ProContractorMX Mobile Connect that can provide project managers with real-time access to valuable data and documents wherever they are working on any given day.

With the software and mobile app, contractors can conveniently create, track, and manage such project-related data and documents as RFIs, transmittals, submittals, and e-mails, rather than carrying around paper-stuffed job binders.

As an all-in-one construction management software, ProContractorMX includes key capabilities for takeoff, estimating, bids and proposals, as well as management of projects, financials, procurement, inventory, employees, payroll, and equipment. The software also features intelligent dashboards and critical reports for timely analysis of projects or the overall business.

Cut-and-fill quantities can be generated from digital site plans by simply importing digital plan files and performing a digital takeoff of construction areas like building pads, retention ponds, or parking islands.

“Estimators can also import takeoff information into ProContractorMX directly from CAD files and automatically assign elevations and join contours to achieve the most accurate cut-and-fill measurements quickly,” says Mike Gillum, director of product management—estimating, Maxwell Systems. “They can then use the same software that seamlessly shares data to quickly calculate and verify what the materials, equipment, and labor will cost you. Plus, verification features, like the 3D View and Fly-by tool, help protect contractors with unparalleled accuracy of takeoff calculations.

“ProContractorMX helps grading and excavation contractors to improve accuracy, bid more jobs in less time, control costs, execute projects efficiently, and increase profitability. Contractors can better manage and make decisions based on accurate, real-time, centralized information—allowing them to turn on a dime, be confident, and have a critical competitive edge.”

Monitoring Equipment and Other Assets
Komtrax, a wireless equipment monitoring system, is a secure, web-based, application that comes installed on most Tier-3 and Tier-4 Komatsu construction equipment, according to Ken Calvert, director of product support systems for Komatsu America Corp. On these machines, there is no communication service fee for the first five years.

The technology can also be installed on almost anything using a 12-V or 24-V electrical system, making it possible to retrofit Komtrax on older machines and non-Komatsu equipment.

Using a network of low-earth-orbit satellites, Komtrax relays basic and critical performance data from the machine to the contractor’s computer as well as to the local Komatsu distributor, enabling the distributor to provide expert analysis and feedback to the contractor. That information also means that distributors can align manpower, processes, and inventories to best support customers’ parts, maintenance, and service needs. With accurate and timely information, distributors have improved response time, which in turn, lowers owners’ costs and downtime, according to Calvert.

Komtrax collects detailed information from machines on a daily basis and through event-driven occurrences, provides customers with daily, monthly, and annual reports on basic and more advanced aspects of machine performance. The data is packaged specifically for easy and intuitive analysis in maps, lists, graphs and charts that can be viewed wherever the contractor chooses.

The information that Komtrax reports varies by machine model, but the system can provide service meter reading, location, operation map (times of day the engine was on/off), actual fuel consumption, digging hours, travel hours, actual working hours, and out-of-area alerts, among other data.

Orlando, FL–based FleetBoss Global Positioning Solutions uses GPS technology to provide fleet management systems and transportation logistics. Fleetboss makes it possible to reduce fuel costs, monitor driver behavior and employee productivity, and reduce maintenance costs and vehicle repairs, according to Dan Lee, vice president of sales at Fleetboss. “In the construction industry, a superintendent can come out with a handheld device and determine how many hours workers have been operating the equipment,” Lee says.

With mobile applications such as smartphones, operators are able to go into an interface directly with a vehicle and determine its activity. Rather than having to ask the drivers what time they got to work and got started, that information is already there.

“We have satisfied customers in a number of industries involved in earthmoving work,” says Lee. One example is Soil Remediation in Ray City, GA. The company has been reducing fuel costs and improving routing and driver dispatch with FleetBoss, which has assisted with IFTA reporting, driver productivity improvements, and especially confirming best routes to customer locations, according to M. Dylan Oberhausen, director of operations. Soil Remediation estimated savings of about a gallon per day on each of its 21 vehicles.

The Tattletale Portable Alarm System is the world’s first and only transportable, cellular security system with high performance wireless sensors, according to Lindsey Kielmeyer, marketing and assistant to chief executive officer Brian Hess, who also invented this system.

The base unit is an all-in-one alarm system. It puts out a 2,000-foot perimeter in which you can place up to 48 indoor or outdoor sensors. The signal booster will give another 2,000 feet from where it is placed, but you add as many as you want to continue extending the range. Rattlesnake technology makes the unit tamper proof. If an intruder attempts to disturb or harm the unit during entry, it will trigger an instant alarm.

The commercial unit, shown on the company website, can be used with no monitoring (making it a noisemaker), text-only notification, or full professional monitoring, including emergency dispatch.

Some of the sensors are supplied with magnets so they can be stuck to heavy machinery. The Rattler has a sensor inside, sensing movement of the sensor itself. If it moves at more than a six-degree axis, it sets off the alarm. Sensors are used in conjunction with a boot box-sized base unit that has two sources of power, one for backup. “As long as there is a power source, protection from the weather, and cell service in the area, the equipment will work,” says Kielmeyer.

The ikeGPS is a handheld device involved in asset management. It allows the user to do a rapid assessment of an area. Just point at a target, press a button, and its GPS coordinates are recorded and a photo is taken of the resource.

“Our ikeGPS has been used by the military and construction-wise for environmental studies,” explains Leon Toorenburg, chief technical officer. “If the intention is to build a temporary structure or use leased land and at the end of the lease you must return the land to the original state, our equipment is perfect, because if at work’s end the owner comes back and says, ‘well those trees were gold-plated,’ you have a record of what the true condition of the resource was before work started.”

An onboard GIS system allows users to have a map and to add points to that map. The file can then be downloaded onto a memory card, as files can grow to be fairly large. Systems come in a 100-meter version and a 300-meter version.

eCamSecure offers portable video surveillance and monitoring services for temporary and permanent use for the private and public sectors, according to eCamSecure and CPS Security’s chief executive officer, Chris Coffey. “Construction sites benefit from our services because we offer various mobile video technologies at low monthly rates that are budget friendly.

“If the site is remote, we can offer a wireless solar surveillance unit with alarm video monitoring and archiving so the client can access their site remotely at any time. Also, if the client has added the alarm video monitoring services via eCam’s own UL Listed Central Station, they would be notified if unauthorized activity has occurred on the property.”

The product that is the newest on the scene is eCamSecure’s Portable Surveillance Unit (PSU). “This ‘plug-and-play’ complete system is solar and ethernet ready and can be mounted on any wall or pole easily,” says Coffey.

Devices that Dig up the Dirt on What’s Underground
Because one of the biggest causes for delays and problems on construction sites is that of utility hits, underground data devices are available to make sure excavators and other equipment aren’t bothered by what they can’t see. Digging smarter instead of faster seems to be the rallying call.

Pipehorn Locating Technology makes long-lasting, low-cost pipe and cable locators and ferromagnetic detectors, according to David Dodd, sales and marketing director.

Excavators are encouraged by the Common Ground Alliance (CGA) to verify existing marks and search for unmarked utilities “They stress this is not a way around the one-call system, but in addition to it,” says Dodd. “The digger still has to call 811 and wait the required time. All the utility owners in the area will mark the ground as to where their utilities are. But when someone gets up on their backhoe, how do they know that someone didn’t miss a high-pressure gas line or high-voltage line?

“If there’s an unmarked utility line there that’s going to hurt you, our equipment is going to tell you in a hurry. Pipehorn has the best ultra-high-frequency signal and ultra-high frequency is what you use when you’re doing a sweep for unmarked utilities.

“The Common Ground Alliance (CGA) has a conference yearly, and what CGA is now telling those doing the work is that they need to get out and search for utilities. They suggest getting the sweepers and making the sweeps as a last line of defense. The more people who do that, the less utilities will be hit and the safer everyone will be. Anybody can learn how to do the sweep in five minutes; it doesn’t require the skill level that hardcore locators require. Any backhoe operator or trencher operator can do this. The technology works.”

Underground Imaging Technologies, recently acquired by Caterpillar, has tied a number of different technologies together to provide a 3D map of the X, Y, and Z locations of what’s underground using its TerraVision II GPR unit. Subsurface Utility Engineering (SUE) is a subset of civil engineering that employs a standard to identify the X, Y, and Z locations of underground utilities. “This standard has been available for quite awhile, but using UIT’s service the accuracy, timeliness, and the cost-effectiveness of SUE starts to make it more viable for people to use on a broader range of projects,” says Bob Ringwelski, business development manager with Caterpillar.

“It is much more than any single tool or device that allows for this degree of accuracy; it is also the way they are all tied together with specially designed software and human interaction in the form of data analysis,” says Mark Wallbom, chief executive officer, UIT. “This is a way to make the ‘yellow iron’ smart, by tying together the location of subsurface features with the X and Y location of the equipment, and by using subscription-grade GPS or a robotic total station, the equipment operator knows the exact elevation of the equipment and therefore is able to ensure it is where it needs to be.”

The TerraVision II is a multichannel GPR unit that has 14 antennas oriented in a kind of checkerboard pattern. This allows for the discovery of linear features underground without the need to use a grid, which makes the data gathering much faster. As the GPR cart goes over any given area, all features are captured by making 256 data traces every four square inches. “Data density is the goal: The more data points you have, the greater the probability is that you can accurately locate what is underground,” adds Ringwelski.

“The beauty is in the way their proprietary software works with all of the geophysical tools UIT brings together. The result is a meaningful visualization of the utilities and other objects that are made available in both 2D and 3D formats making what they find much more valuable to the engineer and the contractor.”

In addition to general utility work, the technology also has potential applications in road building quality control, site evaluation, environmental surveys, and mapping geologic layers for mining applications.

Mala makes radar systems that do underground imaging and detection of utilities. The technology has been around for at least 15 years in a package or configuration very amenable to underground utility location, according to Matt Wolf, president.

The key to Mala’s success has been the simplification of equipment. “These interfaces used now are much simpler, equipment more compact, computer horsepower has increased, communication is now through the Ethernet, and getting data in and out is now a piece of cake,” Wolf says. “The game changer for us was introducing the Easy Locator System, tailoring the system to what a utility locator would expect to use in the field; we’ve simplified these locators as far as they can go.”

Wolf points out that, as with other technology, the price of the equipment has come down dramatically. Years ago the systems were approximately $40,000; now they run about $12,000. “As always, there is no compromise in quality of the equipment or quality and accuracy of the critical data they provide to the end user,” adds Wolf.

Geotrack Inc., a national pioneering subsurface utility engineering firm founded in 1989 that provides comprehensive professional utility locating and mapping solutions, uses a number of different technologies to produce more comprehensive and precise location and maps of underground utilities so that during the design and excavation process they eliminate and mitigate utility hits, according to Jonathan Tan, owner and president of Geotrack Inc.

The company uses electromagnetic, radio-detection, vibratory, and ground-penetrating radar geophysical technologies to locate utilities aboveground, depending on the type, size, and depth of the utility.

Ultimately, to get the most accurate information, including depth, the company uses vacuum excavation with air-knife technology as well as water when needed. This process provides the highest quality of utility location data available.

Geotrack uses a number of different types of equipment, including Radiodetection 4000 and 500 (for plastic pipes) and Subsite 250 R/T and 910 R locators. The 810 and RD 4000 are the workhorses of the locating industry, according to Tan. The company also uses the Mala Easy Locator ground-penetrating radar (GPR) designed specifically for locating underground utilities.

Low-megahertz searches are also done for the locating of metal in electric cable and live wire. Simultaneous peak and null gives them the opportunity either to induce a signal or to deduct a signal if it’s a metal pipe.

The company is able to provide the data captured in the field in CAD format, either using AutoCAD or Micro Station formats, and can also integrate that data into a GIS system or whatever application it has that is useful.

USRadar’s ground-penetrating radar equipment can connect to GPS, and when something is spotted underground, a user may obtain those coordinates. Ron LaBarca, president, explains that their technology enables users to create an image of what’s below the surface.

“We’ve integrated GPS into the system so that maps can be generated,” says LaBarca. “Then we can take the coordinates from the map and find something previously mapped but perhaps with features not detected before.

“Ours is predominantly used for underground utility detection but can also be used for a wide variety of other applications. The resolution and depth are dependent on the frequency antenna that is deployed. Lower frequency gives you greater depth but lower resolution; higher frequency gives you greater resolution but shallower depths.

“The 500-megahertz antenna is the most popular, as it’s able to find both small and large objects. If a user takes the cursor while running a machine and clicks on imaged targets on the data graph, the system will give the user the coordinates of those points. The screen can be tapped, and it will display and record the coordinates. A series of such points clicked upon can then be used to be inserted into an existing map or to create a new map.”

Information can be exported to Google Maps or Google Earth, as well as AutoCAD and other systems. Anomalies showing up on the maps can show the coordinates of where something such as an unmarked underground pipe may be located.

Tool manufacturer Hilti Corp. is introducing a radar-based, concrete scanning system that communicates with project management software. These are solely for use in concrete, according to Jonathan Sturtz, measuring systems business unit manager “They’re not used on soil, but if there is metal in asphalt, the devices will find that, too.”

The company’s PS-200 Ferroscan allows operators to perform onsite evaluation of rebar depth, diameter, and location so that engineers can address structural concerns. If the project requires identifying all objects (or even voids) in concrete, the PS 1000 is the appropriate tool. The PS 200 is for engineers who care more about the load-bearing capacity of the concrete. If engineers wish to identify everything in the concrete, the PS-1000 provides more finely tuned data, especially if scanning for PT cable, as the consequences of not knowing exactly where this is located and features about it can be dire,” says Sturtz.

Both tools take information or data from the tools to where they need to be worked with. The PS-200 is able to do this wirelessly and the PS-1000, due to the volume of data it collects, is done via cable into a computer.

Geophysical Survey Systems Inc. ground-penetrating radar (GPR) equipment is used for many infrastructure-related projects, but primarily for utility finding and to identify embedded structural elements in concrete, such as rebar and tension cable. GPR can locate all types of pipe material, and on pipes that traditional radio frequency locators can’t connect to or were installed without tracer wire.

Resolution is one factor that sets them apart, according to Peter Masters, application specialist with GSSI. Since GPR is a “reading” technology, GPR operators benefit from clear and detailed images. Clear pictures are essential,” says Masters.

“Our equipment is especially rugged and is being used at both poles of the earth and in all types of climates and terrain conditions in between. Our company also supplies excellent training and support. In addition, we’re the only US-made GPR firm in the country and have 40 years of experience in this business.

“One of the biggest payoffs in dollars saved with GPR technology is if it’s done in the design stages of a project. Make GPR part of the design stages of the project, and you’ll save money and time in the design stage and during construction,” says Masters.

“This technology is a case where the science has evolved into commercial applications,” explains Masters. GPR is a time-of-flight technology, meaning that we measure our the time it takes our radar signal to reach an target and reflect back. We integrate horizontal measurements and are able to graph horizontal and depth position. The idea is similar to that of a fish finder on a boat.

“For utility locating, GPR is an important part of a comprehensive toolkit. The more information you collect, the better your decisions will be.” Soil characteristics are often the driving factor in depth penetration, so learning how GPR can be used in your area is essential.

McLaughlin Group Inc. has electromagnetic utility locators, the Verifier G2, Vision FLX or McLaughlin GX that will locate the electromagnetic frequency either from the utilities creating the frequency or that their transmitter will put into the utilities. The frequency is picked up and this equipment lets the user know where the cables are, to the left and right and the depth of the utility.

For mapping purposes the company has linked up its locator with a GPS, so as an underground utility is located, the operator can take the depth data and current strength data that the receiver has picked up and calculated. That can be sent to the GPS, which triggers a record of the latitude and longitude so a user can actually map out what has been located. There are two visual references and one audible to let operators know when they are over the utility.

This system will locate metallic cables and pipe. GPR is used primarily for locating buried nonmetallic utility lines. McLaughlin Group also manufactures auger-boring machines for installing casings beneath roads, along with vacuum excavation equipment for exposing utilities with air or water.

McLaughlin Group has worked in this area with its electronics line for over 20 years, and the GPS add-ons have come within the past three to four years. The basic application of the equipment hasn’t changed,” says Matt Manning, sales project manager for electronics with McLaughlin Group Inc. “Our equipment is durable and well-built for use in the construction environment, can be thrown in the back of a pickup truck, or used in good or bad weather. What’s changed has been the switch from analog to digital and making things more powerful. Through software it has gotten better at filtering out the bad signal versus the good signal for better location of utilities. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel—just make it a little better.”

That, after all, is the goal of technology in construction. When existing technologies can be pulled together to create efficiencies, it makes the large tasks of a grading and excavating site better for everyone involved. When there aren’t any devices that can do that, innovation goes a step further to create a new tool to throw in the back of the truck…or maybe on the front seat.