02.07.2020 : Marcus Hall

Surveying made safer with robotic vehicles

Unsafe work environments continue to provide challenges for the surveying industry, with at times limited or even prohibited access resulting in project delays, increased risks and challenges to the timely capture of measurement data. 

Surveyors can often find themselves at the front end of a project and can be the first people on a site. With safety of paramount concern, surveyors must consider options for how best to access potentially hazardous and restricted areas.

Luckily, current and developing technology is allowing that to happen, and even more affordably than ever before. Take for example, a prototype robotic survey vehicle we’ve been developing, designed specifically to accommodate the Leica BLK360, the smallest, lightweight and mobile 3D laser scanner Beca is currently using.

The prototype robotic vehicle has been designed with versatility in mind - to be used in multiple environments - rugged terrain, confined space culverts or flat industrial type surfaces. It provides a safe and reliable platform capable of carrying its highly sensitive and expensive cargo.

Considerably safer than traditional methods of inspection, there are a number of benefits the robotic prototype can deliver:

 

1. Eliminate health and safety risks

Surveying work commonly takes place in challenging and high-risk environments and conditions. The simple act of not having to physically access a confined or dangerous space is an “elimination” of a potential safety hazard.

The prototype vehicle serves as a valuable inspection tool after a significant event, which allows us to occupy areas that we couldn’t physically access in the past. Take for instance, carrying out inspection of damaged buildings after an earthquake, which eliminates the need for people to enter the building (due to the risk of aftershocks) or inspections in areas with a compromised atmosphere.

2. A cost-effective solution

Entry to some hazardous sites can only be obtained under confined space protocols, which can be costly and time-consuming to implement. Rather than investing in expensive training, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), or outsourcing for what may be a one-off inspection, the robotic vehicle offers a ready and cost-effective solution. Laser scanning and live video capture equipment can be safely transported to and operated in confined spaces.

Piloted remotely, the robotic vehicle provides the same high-quality result as traditional surveying, but without risk to personal health and safety, and with fewer personnel than would typically need to be involved.

3. On-point data accuracy

The strength of the robotic survey vehicle is being able to remotely manoeuvre a 3D laser scanner into a position and complete a 360-degree laser scan of that area, move the robot and complete another scan. Through the systematic sweeping of a laser pulse, 3D laser scanning provides millions of individual data points and specific coordinates to create what is called a ‘point cloud’. Several point clouds can be obtained from various positions, and if there is overlap, these point clouds are stitched together to represent that environment spatially.

4. Monitoring change

The ability to compare one point cloud data set with another, is now a common monitoring survey technique for analysing deformation particularly in complex or unsafe environments. Obtaining point-cloud data sets with ease using the robotic vehicle, enables a ‘complete picture’ output, where we can clearly measure, analyse and represent any change between surveys over time.

5. Real-time video and 360° imagery 

Perfect for completing condition assessments, where you need a live camera feed. A recent culvert survey we did, demonstrated the ability to locate a damaged part of the culvert using the live video feed, and then initiate a laser scan at that position to assess the circularity of the culvert and measure any structural deformation. Photographic 360° imagery was then used for post survey analysis.

 

Aerial drones – do they cover all the bases?

Aerial drones or unmanned aerial vehicles have occupied centre stage over the last few years, and have been tremendously successful in many ways, primarily allowing the surveyor to stay in a place of safety while the drone does the work. Drones have become an integral tool for mapping and monitoring large projects in much of the world, simplifying the inspection of buildings, rooftops, and hard-to-reach structures and environments from above. It’s safe to say they certainly have the skies covered, yet they may not be the feasible choice when it comes to being able to manoeuvre through hidden terrains, ditches, culverts, collapsed or damaged buildings or other hard to reach places.

Picture this. A 50-meter directional drilled borehole has just been installed under a busy railway track. Your team of surveyors need to find out how straight the steel sleeve insert is. The diameter of the borehole is 600mm, and it’s not a safe environment for a surveyor to enter, and nor is it suitable for an aerial drone. As you search for a solution, you consider; what if the entire operation could be carried out by a remote-controlled robotic vehicle, potentially operated miles away from the scene?

 

Future planning and disruption

Current plans are to progress from this prototype stage into a fully developed, versatile machine capable of carrying more advanced survey equipment, visual inspection equipment and sensors to a wider array of terrains and environments. There has been plenty of interest from people around our business and our clients. As we progress with refining the design and development, it’s great to hear ideas and suggestions in relation to the types of uses that people can see for it. 

As businesses look ahead for new and innovative ways to find safer, more sustainable solutions that make our jobs easier, robotic survey techniques may well become part of the future.

About the Author

Marcus Hall

Associate - Surveyor

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