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The immersive world we live in is also the immersive world we engineer with our technologies

The 3D environment in which we live, and in which our assets are operated, has converged now to be the 3D environment in which infrastructure engineers conceive and ‘conceptioneer’ in the context of capturing that geospatial environment with new technologies.

Greg Bentley, CEO, Bentley Systems

Location has become all pervasive today. It is present in every aspect of our lives, including building infrastructure. How did this happen?

The 3D environment in which we live, and in which our assets are operated, has converged now to be the 3D environment in which infrastructure engineers conceive and ‘conceptioneer’ in the context of capturing that geospatial environment with new technologies. The operations of our infrastructure assets are roadways, railways, metros, power generation and transmission, and distribution of water systems. There are all experienced in the geospatial context, from being able to relate the reality of how infrastructure improves our lives to the ‘virtuality’ of how we as infrastructure engineers can improve the projects’ and the assets’ performance. That convergence has just come about to a degree that, I believe, is the major factor in going from geospatial to geosmart. The immersive world we live in is also the immersive world we engineer with our technologies.

The world economic recovery is uncertain once again. How do you see it affecting the business?

In the United Kingdom, infrastructure is the national strategy. The government sees BIM as better information modeling for better project performance and better asset delivery. This is helping the engineers in the UK to become more proficient and able.

Then you have China. People say that China’s bubble is bursting, but the only bubble I know of in China is in commercial properties. On the infrastructure side, the spending continues to be strong because of strong economic returns to those investments. Our users in China are doing excellent work in Utilities and urbanizing the country.

Overall, in the world at large, there is an infrastructure deficit. But, there is also a huge amount of liquidity and investment opportunity, and infrastructure is one sector which can provide reliable returns over a long term. All we need to do is creatively enable financial engineering for investment to be applied to infrastructure.

Can you share your views on this new and interesting technology called Reality Modeling, and how it applies to the infrastructure world?

It is when observations are made of the ‘as operated world’, captured from simple digital photography, and then processed into a reality mesh of 3D model that the engineers use in our software products to do optioneering and project delivery work. Today, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones are being extensively used for capturing the photos and video of infrastructure assets. Our software turns these images into 3D mesh models in the frame of reference to provide the context for the engineering work either in a new project or a retrofit, and then the same survey can be done continuously during the construction and the operation of those assets. This eliminates the need for special equipment or special crew.

You can use ordinary devices that anyone can operate. You can even use smartphones to add observations from the ground, with the software being able to process that into a geometric representation — a mesh — with photorealistic accuracy. It just reinforces the notion that geospatial technologies are not separate, but part of a geosmart convergence in the work of engineers for project delivery and asset performance.

Bentley's Reality Modeling technology was applied to create a 3D city model of Philadelphia
Bentley’s Reality Modeling technology was applied to create a 3D city model of Philadelphia

So, what you are essentially doing is turning a non-geo thing — a photograph in this case — into a geo entity…

The mobility of information is enhanced by the location capabilities of our mobile devices. So, if you allow your smartphone to always be aware of your geospatial location, you can use it for information mobility. Your geo-tagged photographs can be used to create geosmart representations of infrastructure, such as, a water treatment plant, or transmission and distribution of overhead lines and substations, etc. For instance, a non-specialized crew working on the Nagpur metro project in India learned how to operate a drone in a week. So, the overlapping, oblique photographs which the drone took were processed through aerial triangulation in our software to yield a 3D model in the mesh format. Now, the models of the new metro would be designed by engineers in this geometric format. So, yes, a person taking ordinary photographs from a camera or drone would not be thinking that they have been using geospatial technologies.

Our software allows users to derive survey-level of accuracy, provided you give it enough number of photographs in the desired resolution. If you could achieve continuous surveying without using special hardware or without using a special crew, I would call it a breakthrough.

We heard about Bentley’s involvement in the planning and execution of Pope Francis’s visit to the US. Would you share some details?

The Pope came to Philadelphia, which is where our headquarters are located, in September 2015. We realized that we could apply Reality Modeling technology to create a 3D city model of Philadelphia. This wouldn’t be just to visualize and show and plan — although that could be useful for the Pope’s visit — but actually to provide the basis for the engineering of the temporary structures, the barricades, special facilities, the stage, and so forth, for the visit.
It had to be done in just a few weeks. That was a challenge and an experiment for us. And we like to showcase the result of the 3D city model created with a few helicopter trips in the air and some existing aerial photography that produced the basic model, all processed by the 3D Reality Modeling software. This was then provided in our MicroStation and our application environment for the engineers to actually do the work required to provide the facilities for the visit.
The outcome was very positive. We learned a lot. Our users will now benefit from that experience and how simple and quick it can be to take advantage of Reality Modeling for asset operations of the whole city of Philadelphia.

Are others doing similar work or should we call it a technological innovation by Bentley?

Well, others are producing models from photographs. But, our particular contribution is to integrate the workflow so that the 3D result from photography is in exactly the same form factor as the engineers’ own work. We are the world leaders in infrastructure engineering software. Civil engineers, structural engineers, building systems engineers, plant engineers, et al, use our software to do their designs, retrofits and construction in 3D. We have enabled them to now include the context captured from photography and continuous surveying. So, the result of the digital photography is better and pervasive engineering throughout the lifecycle of the infrastructure asset.

How can this Reality Modeling concept be applied to building smart and connected cities?

Every project to improve our cities starts with a geospatial location in which we are to design and build something. Capturing the context of that should now be a routine activity not requiring special surveying. If you have drone footage, supplemented by street-level photography, then each construction site becomes the basis, the canvas, the context, and the as-operated beginning of the optioneering for what would be the new roadway, or the new bridge, or the new substation. And those, in turn, become the digital engineering models created as a part of a smart city. These can further be connected together for a continually surveyed 3D mesh model, which can be geo-coordinated with the work the engineers do.

So, if you see something in operations and maintenance that is geo-coordinated, you can reference it to the 3D digital engineering models, and compare what was designed. For example, schematic diagrams about a water treatment plant could be connected, referenced and federated through the 3D immersive interface. A geosmart city will be navigated through a 3D interface resulting from a continuously surveyed and updated, as-operated 3D reality model captured through photography.

What is the significance of Bentley Connect edition for engineering projects?

All of our new software — including the design and analytical modeling software that is in front of the infrastructure professionals, the civil and structural and plant engineers of the world — is connected through the Microsoft Azure Cloud to everyone else. It allows resources to collaborate for sharing work, catalogues and scenarios, to improve the quality of the projects.

How does it benefit project owners? 

Connection provides visibility. In the past, the owner of a project that is under construction would have been able to gain visibility into the path of construction by looking out the window and seeing what the crane is doing. But today, our software anticipates, provides and incorporates offsite fabrication of building service modules. As global sourcing becomes the way to put together infrastructure projects (for instance, a bridge can be assembled offsite and assembled and deployed on site), the path of visibility has to be a ‘virtual’ path of visibility. We contribute by connecting all this together through a Cloud service that can show the status of the work packaging involved.

What are some of your other offerings in asset information management?

With all the affordable sensors and inexpensive wireless devices that connect the observations from the infrastructure operations together, Industrial Internet of Things is happening very quickly. You could monitor your asset’s performance with the streams of Big Data coming in, but the key question is how to make intelligent decisions from that data. How do the operators and the maintenance crew figure out when intervention is required to capitalize on economic opportunity? The digital engineering models can provide the frame of reference — the base line — to make those decisions during operations. If you know the structural model by which the bridge was created, and you have sensors telling you about the deflections and vibrations in actual practice, you can tell what should be the behaviour of the bridge. You can go from asset performance monitoring to asset performance modeling by utilizing a digital DNA created by the infrastructure engineers in the first place. All the information environments can be tied together in the Azure Cloud.