Geospatial technologies have long played a role in creating roads and
railways. Attention is shifting to businesses and individuals who use the
By Ron Bisio
Take a moment to consider the roads, highways, railways, ports and airports around you. With immense variety in scale, function and complexity, our planet’s transportation infrastructure ranks high among mankind’s most impressive achievements. It owes much of its existence to geospatial technologies.
Geospatial information plays an essential role in the processes by which transportation projects are conceived, planned and constructed. Transportation agencies need accurate terrain data and cadastral information to select a transportation corridor and execute a project. During planning and construction, engineers and contractors rely on precise positioning to design and build the myriad structures that make up modern transportation facilities. Once an infrastructure project is in operation, geospatial data enables owners and maintenance teams to keep the infrastructure in good condition and adapt to changes in demand and public needs.
These functions use an array of technologies. GNSS and optical systems provide positioning data for mapping, engineering and construction (including automated machine control), as well as inspection and quality control. Imaging and LiDAR assist in planning, maintenance and upgrades. Mobile mapping and airborne systems, including unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), can rapidly gather information over large areas. Software for processing, modelling and analysis blends data from these sources to deliver concise, actionable information to project owners, contractors and the public.
However, the benefits are not limited to the infrastructure itself. One of today’s most important trends is the increasing use of geospatial technologies by enterprises that use the infrastructure in transporting people, goods and services. This trend goes far beyond in-car GPS navigation systems that guide drivers to the nearest coffee shop or fuel station. Today, geospatial technology interacts with back-office systems to manage widely dispersed workers and assets. In an increasingly mobile world, the new technologies are changing the way in which transportation works.
Geospatial technologies have delivered tangible advantages to transportation businesses. Major benefits include improved safety and productivity, lower fuel consumption, reduced carbon emissions and increased customer satisfaction. Let’s look at three examples in the transportation arena where geospatial information is guiding operational decisions at multiple levels and locations.
Field service operations
Field service organizations use mobile workforces made up of technicians and vehicles to serve customers and equipment dispersed over large areas. This segment includes industries such as construction, repair and maintenance services (appliances, plumbers, etc.); telecommunications and cable; emergency response; utilities and delivery services.
In order to operate efficiently, these organizations combine positioning and connectivity technologies with fleet management systems. Integrated systems manage real-time information on the location and status of each vehicle and technician. By using fleet management technologies, they can connect fleet operations, worker scheduling and vehicle maintenance schedules as well as tie field operations to back-office systems.
The geospatial components of field service management deliver significant value. For example, a company that services communication towers uses Trimble fleet management solutions in its trucks. By knowing the location of each truck, the firm can quickly react to a service request and identify the technician closest to the tower. Work orders are sent directly to the technician and in-vehicle displays guide the technician to the tower location. Companies have reported as much as 30% reduction in fuel consumption as a result of improved routing and reduced idling.
In some industries, the blend of geospatial and back-office data can drive the decision of which technician to dispatch to a given service call. The technician nearest to the request may not have the skills or equipment needed to resolve the issue. In this case, it is more effective to send a different technician who can handle the customer’s needs.
In addition to GNSS, other sensors can monitor status and events on the vehicle. For instance, companies that collect trash and recyclables can automatically record the time and location each time a truck lifts and empties a collection bin. This information can be used for billing and to resolve customer questions.
One variable in integrating a new technology into mobile work processes is how readily the mobile workers adopt it. As workforces evolve and employees retire, they are being replaced by newer, tech-savvy workers. The incoming workers offer the opportunity to use connectivity and mobile tools to share information and guide work processes. In many cases, workers have their own smartphones, which enables organizations to employ a “bring your own device” (BYOD) strategy to mobile workforce management. By loading work applications onto employees’ smartphones, companies can reduce time and costs in implementing mobile workforce solutions while improving the exchange of information between field and office.
When using mobile workforce technologies, companies can monitor driver performance and improve efficiency and safety. Systems can identify unwanted driver behaviors such as speeding, deviation from assigned routes or excessive idle time, enabling managers to coach drivers to perform according to expectations. Onboard technologies for geofencing can alert owners when a vehicle has travelled out of a designated area and even assist in recovery of stolen assets.
Much of the global economy depends on moving freight from one place to another. On land, long-haul trucking handles the bulk of the shipping. In the US alone, trucking carried nearly 70% of the nation’s freight in 2012. Roughly 2.5 million large trucks hauled more than 13.2 billion tons (12.0 metric tons) of cargo. Other regions, including Europe and Asia, also rely heavily on trucking.
While the amount of freight carried by trucks in the US continues to increase, the business model of the truckers is changing. Rather than independent owner-operators, most trucks are now owned by trucking companies. Many are small businesses that run as few as five trucks in their fleets. It’s a highly competitive industry with tight margins.
Given the numbers, even marginal improvements in efficiency can produce significant cost savings for fleet operators. These improvements can come from driving behaviors such as optimized routing and reduced idling. Other improvements lie in effective management of loads, labor and regulatory costs.
Truck drivers commonly use GPS for navigation and route planning. A truck’s location is just one piece of information available to optimize its performance and profitability. New technologies provide tools to improve safety, compliance and maintenance aspects of trucking operations. These solutions enable operators to shift from reactive problem solving to a proactive approach in managing and preventing trouble. Fleet operators can gather more data on their business and actively improve customer service.
The power of geospatial data in transportation is illustrated by the GeoLogistics portfolio from ALK Technologies, Inc. Moving beyond basic navigation, GeoLogistics combines positioning and communications with rich databases to support efficiency, compliance and safety. Drawing from datasets on highway conditions, truck routes can be planned to account for vehicle size, traffic, weather and tolls. Planning of trips for vehicles carrying hazardous materials (hazmat) can be limited to designated hazmat routes. Systems can include required driver rest stops into trip plans and show drivers the best prices for fuel along the way. Real-time tracking enables the system to monitor progress and guide drivers to avoid delays due to traffic, construction or hazards. With solutions running on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, fleet operators can use the BYOD approach to control costs and accelerate their drivers’ acceptance of the new technologies.
One of today’s interesting trends is extending the Internet of Things (IoT) to long-haul trucks. Using the concept of the Internet of Transportation Things (IoTT), networks of sensors on a vehicle can track its location, mechanical systems, condition of cargo as well as monitoring driver habits and performance. Sensors can collect information about the vehicle such as pressures, temperatures, fluid levels, throttle position and video images. Rather than storing data for post-trip download and review, modern solutions incorporate real-time communications that enables fleet operators to monitor their vehicles throughout each trip.
Onboard freight monitoring systems are especially valuable in carrying food or other temperature-sensitive cargo, where refrigerated trucks (known as ‘reefers’) must maintain proper temperatures to prevent spoilage or thawing. Because multiple carriers may be involved in moving food from the source to market, it is difficult to monitor and control key parameters of temperature and humidity. Using IoTT, onboard GPS can track the location of each load (or items in the load) while other sensors measure conditions inside the reefer. The information is immediately available in the Cloud, enabling managers to identify conditions that might result in spoilage or other issues. They can then take proactive steps to protect the cargo.
Efficiency and safety in rail transportation
Compared to other modes of land transportation, railways have an inherent advantage in fuel efficiency per ton-kilometer. As a result, shippers often choose to move cargo using trains rather than trucks. This presents attractive growth potential for railway operators, but the opportunity is tempered by the finite capacity of rail infrastructure and rolling stock.
One way to address the limitations is to expand capacity by upgrading existing facilities or adding new track and routes. Similar to roads and highways, geospatial technologies are widely used in rail infrastructure, supplying information for planning and design, construction, inspection and maintenance.
However, building new infrastructure is not the only solution. By improving the utilization and efficiency of existing mobile assets (rail cars and locomotives), railways can increase capacity and manage costs. Using approaches analogous to the trucking industry, rail operators connect field data with back office and asset management systems.
For example, the Trimble Nexala R2M solution uses onboard sensors to supply real-time remote diagnostic data to maintenance depots. The information enables scheduling of fault diagnostics and repairs based on the actual condition of the vehicle. This approach increases the efficiency of operations and drives maintenance actions needed to avoid future failures. Other solutions use schedules, train location and real-time diagnostics to reduce delays while maximizing energy and fuel efficiency. The systems include in-cab displays that provide information and guidance for train drivers to adhere to timetables and manage energy consumption.
Safety and efficiency are high-priority issues in the rail industry. The push for rail safety has spawned aggressive initiatives on multiple continents. Programs such as the European Rail Traffic Management System (EMRTS) and the US Positive Train Control (PTC) are intended to increase safety by using information on the location and status of trains and rail facilities. The programs establish methods for monitoring and controlling train movement, including speed and separation from other trains as well as safety for trackside workers. The implementations include in-cab guidance and can support automated control as well. For example, the operator can receive instructions on when to begin slowing for a curve based on the severity of the curve together with the train’s speed and braking characteristics.
Implementation of PTC requires extensive geospatial information. Accurate data is needed on the location of tracks, switches, signals and rail facilities. Technologies such as GNSS and mobile mapping are well suited for this task. To keep the databases up-to-date, software algorithms for change detection help to streamline work to identify encroachments or other situations that require attention.
Geospatial systems provide another benefit for railways: In addition to supporting PTC requirements, the position and attribute information populates large GIS datasets that rail operators can use to increase efficiency in operations, maintenance and asset management.
We should expect geospatial solutions to play a central role as PTC and related systems evolve. For example, real-time GNSS can monitor a train’s location and speed. The information can be shared with the operator, other trains and control centers. The decision to enter a specific section (or ‘block’) of track is currently made using data from axle sensors at each end of the block. With geospatial data, the decision can be made based on information on the actual location and speed of the preceding train. The technology will enable operators to get more trains onto existing track while maintaining strict protocols for safety and spacing.
New prospects for geospatial professionals
New applications for geospatial technologies will continue to emerge, with many solutions focusing on automatic transportation management and operation. Autonomous vehicles will rely on real-time positioning and accurate, detailed maps to negotiate urban and rural areas. Modernization of air traffic control will use GNSS to ensure safety and save fuel by enabling aircraft to fly shorter routes between cities. Integrating fleet management solutions with utility operations can reduce response times for outages or spills. And emergency managers and first responders can use geospatial data to increase situational awareness as they position and dispatch critical resources.
When the new applications are combined with geospatial technologies for planning, engineering and construction, we see a threefold benefit. First, the time and cost to construct new or upgraded infrastructure are reduced. Second, because the infrastructure is utilized more efficiently, its capacity increases at no additional cost. This results in a higher return on the taxpayers’ investment. Third, efficient, well-managed vehicles return benefits through lower fuel consumption, reduced emissions, optimized maintenance programs and improved customer satisfaction.
These trends offer important opportunities for geospatial professionals. Service providers such as aerial imagers, photogrammetrists, surveyors, mobile mappers and data analysts can become trusted advisors for their clients. New opportunities also exist within the transportation companies. As use of geospatial information increases in quantity and sophistication, many firms will seek to employ in-house expertise. By investing in the skills and tools needed to solve specialized needs in transportation, geospatial professionals can place themselves on the road to continued growth and success.