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Omaha Magazine

Driven by Technology: Engineers Embrace New Technology to Speed Up Project Timelines

May 27, 2021 03:37PM ● By Scott Stewart
Brian Orton works on plane project

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

The idea of a building engineer being a licensed pilot was once thought of as a hobby, not a professional asset; but some of today’s engineers need their pilot’s licenses. While a well-sharpened pencil is always a handy tool for working the math problems that create skyscrapers, the engineers behind those facilities, and Omaha’s high-tech workplaces, say the work they’re doing greatly benefits from new technologies.

Nearly gone are the days of blueprints and scale models, replaced instead by virtual models—sometimes called a digital twin—depicting a planned building in greater detail. Projects can even be mapped into a “four-dimensional” model that shows a project’s development over time or the cost of each project component.

“It’s a golden age of information technology that we’re living in right now,” said Brian Orton, a vice president at Olsson. “These past five years, and then these next 10 years, are going to be pretty fascinating to sit back and witness, let alone be part of.”

Renderings can show a building on the exact landscape of a site thanks to high-resolution photos captured by drones. Engineers can show how lighting will fill a space or fine-tune design with a computer’s assistance.

Orton says it won’t be long before computers are generating the initial designs for projects.

A decade ago, smartphones weren’t nearly as ubiquitous. Now smart devices are supplanting conventional computers, relying on the power of data centers.

“Today, we are almost completely cloud-based in our design practice,” said Orton, who runs Olsson’s data center engineering and construction engagement with large tech firms. “The work that we’re doing is collaborative with multiple parties synched through the cloud, so our design development is happening much faster.”

So, too, is the surveying that takes place before those buildings are designed.

David H. Neef, a registered land surveyor for Thompson, Dreessen & Dorner for nearly three decades, now also has to be an FAA-licensed pilot. He plans missions and uses drones to map and gather topographical information for sites that TD2 is surveying.

The drones take a photo every two-thirds of a second, and a computer pieces together the few hundred photos, using GPS data to create a composite photo.

Before drones, Neef said he would send a field crew out to measure every dimension and elevation by hand using tape or surveying equipment. Those measurements would be used to create a line drawing of the site.

“The advantage of using the drone is now you get a really nice, clear, current picture of the site,”
Neef said.  

While a traditional survey of a 200-acre site once took a two-person crew about two weeks, the drone surveying can be completed within one day.

“It saves a lot of time on site,” Neef said.

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

Once those pictures are captured, highly technical projects continue to move quickly, so Olsson plans projects in their actual space instead of abstract drawings. 4D modeling allows for time, cost, or other location-based data to be shown alongside the plans. Instead of blueprints, Olsson now uses a sophisticated database.

“That’s the way the entire industry is moving,” Orton said. “We can bring a bit more adaptivity within the design suite.”

The computers can also perform seismic calculations, analyze energy use, show how light will hit the building, and help reduce wait time and control costs. Eventually, the software is expected to be able to generate initial designs and help
optimize projects.

“The building blocks you can see are there,” Orton said. “We’re getting very sophisticated.”

Omaha has become a destination for data centers and other high-tech projects—and not just the Google and Facebook projects that dominate the headlines, but smaller, specialized data centers as well.

“We have a lot of others that are doing great work,” Orton said. “Data centers are an anchor technology that raises a lot of ships.”

The metro area also has investments in robotics and other technologies that promise to boost the region’s productivity and creativity. Still, many improvements can be found in everyday sort of projects, such as new sanitary and
improvement districts.

Neef said TD2’s drones are perfectly suited for mapping new subdivisions going into cornfields that have been picked clean. They’re also useful to access areas that are unsafe but critical for surveying work, such as landfills.

They can also be used to survey an area repeatedly—which can help spot erosion, such as along a levee at risk of succumbing to a flood, or just show the development of a construction project.

Out-of-town clients prefer to see the drone photos, too, Neef said. It can help spot issues with roofs, parking lots, and other structures that might not have otherwise been noticed.

“The photo helps identify that sort of thing that you would never see on the conventional way of doing things,” Neef said. “It just gives you more information. A picture is worth a thousand words, as they say.”

The drones rely on the Global Positioning System that’s been in widespread use for about 20 years. Neef said the advent of GPS was one of the biggest changes in the surveying industry. The use of drones takes that advancement to the next level.

Neef believes the technology will soon be used to help control costs by monitoring how work is progressing, helping to identify issues during construction that can be fixed immediately.

“It is going to cost less today to move something than when a project is almost done,” Neef said.

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This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of B2B Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.