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5 Years Down: Making BRI projects financially sustainable, the geospatial way

Since its launch in 2015, China’s US$900 billion Belt and Road (BRI) Initiative continues to provide opportunities across industries worldwide. Comprising of six main corridors across Asia and Europe, open opportunities and geospatial projects remain aplenty with investments amounting to US$155 billion across the transport and infrastructure sectors in those corridors based on data from Leica Geosystems. In January 2020 alone, Myanmar has signed 33 Memorandum of Understanding (MoUs) with China for new BRI projects[1]. Without a doubt, China’s greatest project is far from over, with new and exciting projects to come.

However, BRI projects has brought about concerns over debt sustainability[2] to finance them. The budget for construction projects is mainly allocated to material and labour costs[3], and it is important to note that the longer the project duration, the higher the cost for companies. Delays in the construction process will likewise worsen financial concerns. It is not uncommon for projects to be halted due to excessive costs, as countries like Pakistan, Malaysia and Myanmar have backed away from BRI projects due to that reason. Therefore, companies should aim to look to better ways and more productive processes to minimise costs, as it is critical to consider the efficiency of BRI projects.

Potential Opportunities for Geospatial Technologies

This is where the geospatial industry comes in. Every construction project goes through multiple stages, from planning to implementation and post-production[4]. Each stage of the process requires rigorous precision and connectivity of all involved partners. It is thus important to understand what engineers and their partners are looking for when reviewing projects and solutions. To maximise the impact of investments on the BRI and complete projects in the shortest time possible, companies can look to the geospatial industry to provide increasingly accurate data, connectivity and efficiency to ensure that projects are financially sustainable.

Increasing Accuracy and Efficiency of Data Gathering

With every unique geographical location, each project must be tailored for its environment. Even before any work takes place, the project areas must first be assessed. The locations and placements of railway tracks, platforms and buildings are important information that must be factored in the planning process. By using optimised solutions, geospatial technologies can speed up work processes by improving the accuracy and efficiency of data gathering for the project areas.

For instance, the construction of the Gotthard Base Tunnel[5] utilised reality capture devices such as the Leica Pegasus:Two to provide precise first-person panoramic views from exact locations for the project. This allowed the 57km project to join two sections of the tunnel with a deviation of only 8 centimetres when 25 centimetres would have sufficed, while also monitoring the surrounding environment to ensure stability. Likewise, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can also feed current data to create a clear view on site progression, adding safety and increasing cost savings. UAVs offer fast access to information, are becoming easier to operate, and the operating cost is a fraction of other data collection methods.

Gotthard Base Tunnel

BRI projects will find these geospatial technologies particularly useful, as it allows them to minimise deviations and reduce costs. An example of such projects is the China-Indochina Peninsular Corridor BRI project. As part of the corridor, the Chinese-Laos Railway[6] is a 414km route connecting Mohan and Kunming in China to Bangkok in Thailand. The railway will stretch over 75 tunnels and 167 bridges. The data that engineers require for these projects must be precise, as even a slight mistake can block important trade routes for months. Such BRI projects can benefit from geospatial technologies that provide accurate mapping and data gathering like reality capture devices and UAVs, to mitigate the issues early in the planning stages. This will, in turn, reduce costs and speed up the later stages of construction.

Reducing Costs by Increasing Efficiency

It is essential for construction companies to streamline their processes for any project to improve productivity and reduce costs. Similarly, for BRI projects, they can leverage geospatial solutions to achieve the best results more efficiently.

For example, the Hinkley Point C Power Plant[7], which is designed to deliver 7% of UK’s electricity needs, made use of the Leica iCON iRD3 solution in two drilling rigs[8] to prevent rework and improve productivity. The solution allows for stitch drilling, where numerous shallow holes are drilled, decreasing the time taken to set up drill mast and completing more than 40,000 linear metres of stitch drilling. With the use of machine control, the drill mast was set up at the right orientations and positions, providing savings while reducing labour costs. As stitch drilling normally comprises the drilling of large numbers of shallow holes, any decrease in the time taken to set up the drill mast on individual holes had a significant implication in reducing the overall time taken to complete a specified area.

Hinkley Point C Power Plant

Construction companies can also benefit from increased efficiency by integrating digital technologies into project workflows. For example, Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority (BCA) launched the Integrated Digital Delivery (IDD)[9] implementation plan to encourage companies in the built environment sectors to go digital, demonstrate the productivity and savings that can be realised from digitalising workflows, automating processes and ensuring all stakeholders have access to dynamic, critical information. Throughout the construction and building lifecycle, a series of digital assets such as 3D point clouds and Building Information Models (BIM) can be produced in order to scale and improve the workflow of the entire team – from the design and engineering experts to the final operation and maintenance specialists.

These solutions encapsulate advantages that the geospatial industry can bring to BRI projects, allowing more efficient execution and financial sustainability.

Ready for Adversities

The 2019 novel coronavirus COVID-19 is a testament to the need to be prepared and take the right precautions in times of crisis. The suspension of many of China’s metal manufacturers and ports have cut off exports, and in turn, delayed many construction projects across the world. Major BRI projects in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Indonesia have been halted[10]. With concerns that the disease will last till the end of the year and its impact will be felt for longer, it is important to track the disease to take the right actions. Hexagon’s technology, like the Smart M.App, is used to help researchers and international health organizations understand global health threats. Companies can use these tools to take the proper actions, such as scaling back work, to prevent huge losses. 

Future of Projects in the BRI

The 2019 novel coronavirus COVID-19 is undoubtedly China’s and the whole world’s greatest concern as of right now. It is a reminder that there is a need to be prepared for such situations. COVID-19 was not the first and will not be the last epidemic the world will face. With the right tools available, situations can be better tracked and monitored.

We have seen how geospatial solutions have contributed to construction projects all over the world. There is no doubt that these tools will remain big players in the future and contribute significantly to the BRI and the world. With a range of solutions from reality capture, aerial mapping, machine control, to digitalised workflow, geospatial solutions are suited to overcome any challenges. Geospatial solutions are even able to aid research across the globe. By allaying concerns regarding financial sustainability in advance, geospatial solutions can be the most valuable assets for BRI projects.

Also Read: How China is using technology to fight coronavirus