Street Smarts

As part of a trade mission to New York City this past March, Llyr Lane, one of the principals from Wales-based Gwalia Surveyors, attended a presentation put on by the New York Economic Development Corporation (NYEDC). There, he became intrigued by the corporation’s efforts in promoting New York City’s Smart Cities Innovation Hub in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, and felt that his company could play a role in that effort. So he proposed a pilot project in which Gwalia would scan a section of the Brownsville district and, using that data, create an information-rich, geometrically accurate, interactive BIM model. The model, when further developed, could provide valuable information useful for the implementation of the new technology that is so key to the Smart Cities concept. Less than four months later, a pair of safety vest-clad Welshmen were taking the first step in that process, laser scanning amidst a sea of characteristically disinterested Brooklynites.

Playing to Strengths

The idea of smart cities—metropolitan areas in which information and communication technology (ICT) and Internet of things (IoT) technology are securely integrated in order to manage a city’s myriad physical and informational assets—dates back more than a decade. As the concept has grown, however, so too have the programs put in place to aid in its development. According to Gwalia’s Llyr Lane, his company’s interest stems from its own proven expertise in BIM technology.

“We’ve been laser scanning for about six or seven years now,” he said. “We got into it fairly early and always felt like there was going to be a time when 3D modeling and point clouds were going to be the order of the day. Largely because of the British government’s 2016 mandate that any government-funded project must be conducted at a BIM Level 2, that’s come true. For us, performing building work—a refurbishment, for example—regularly would include laser scanning to a point cloud, modeling, then tagging and scheduling all the elements in the structure. Depending on the specification from the client, that could include everything down to the last screw. Add in schedule and cost-related items and it becomes something of a 5D project.”

Taking it Outside

If BIM could prove so invaluable inside a structure, thought Lane and his team, why couldn’t that applicability extend beyond the structures themselves? With that framework in mind—and very aware of the smart cities concepts afoot—Gwalia began considering ways in which that same technology could apply to the open spaces outside of these buildings. Based on what they already knew, they felt that the potential for a geospatial solution—specifically a laser scanner—was limitless.

“We pride ourselves on thinking a bit out of the box and felt that the strengths of this technology were perfect for what the Smart Cities concept represents,” he said. “The focus from the NYC perspective as it applies to the Brooklyn Neighborhood Innovation Lab, was on improving health and safety, improving security, providing connectivity for all, integrating both existing and evolving technology and job creation. With those criteria in mind, we set out to laser scan just a small fragment of the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, then tag and schedule info for subsequent use in determining what is important in this space, what will affect the quality of life for those in that area, etc.”

Lane and his team were already privy to some of the tech approaches being considered for implementation in the target section of Brooklyn. Two of these include benches that use solar power to provide a mobile device charging station, and Bluetooth beacons designed to help visually impaired people. In the first example, obviously, benches which utilize solar conductivity need to be placed in areas that make use of maximum sunlight. So heights of buildings, their position relative to the sun at different times of the day, etc., become critical.

“In the case of the Bluetooth beacons, it is envisioned that a person could, for example, have their phone notify them that there is a bus stop 300 meters down the road,” added Lane. “Using the data derived from our laser scanning session, we can provide dimensionally correct information that will help make that possible. And, because accuracies have to be high to preclude someone stepping out into a road, we can dramatically improve on the existing base map—which is accurate to ±2 meters—by offering millimeter-grade accuracies. In that way, they can set the beacons precisely where they are needed along a route, knowing they have dimensionally-correct info as that notification is issued. We see a lot of synergy with companies like that as we move forward.”

Working with Topcon Positioning Systems, Lane and his group were able to have a new GLS-2000 laser scanner waiting for them upon arrival at their Manhattan hotel.

“Andrew Evans from Topcon’s U.K office and the Topcon team here in the States were outstanding in getting us outfitted with the instrument, tripod, replacement batteries, and so on,” he said. “Doing so made travel—and passing through customs—a whole lot simpler.”

After the Gathering

The pilot scanning session conducted by Gwalia covered a roughly six-block area in Brownsville. Equipped with a Topcon GLS-2000 laser scanner, Lane and Duncan Bell, a colleague and senior land surveyor for the company, set up at various points along Pitkin Avenue and conducted more than two-dozen scanning sessions which would be used to create the 3D model of Brownsville. Taking the data back to the U.K., Lane utilized Topcon MAGNET Collage software to begin construction of the point cloud. Billed by Topcon as an immersive point cloud solution, Topcon Collage delivers processing and mass data handling at previously unmatched speeds—often as much as eight times faster—with a comparably quick rendering and visualization capability.
“There are a number of benefits we have seen using Collage at the outset of our post-processing effort,” said Bell. “For one, the registration process was extremely quick. In addition, the graphics engine is much smoother, thereby enabling the viewing of larger data sets. Just by nature of its design, we are excited to now be able to easily integrate data from multiple sources, including laser mapping, data from a drone, and scanning data such as we gathered in Brownsville. It is also ideal for generating a web-based platform accessible by members of the public—precisely our long-term goal for the smart cities project.”
With the point cloud data in hand, using Autodesk Revit, Duncan created a 3D model of the target Brownsville section, then conducted several model “fly-throughs” before beginning the actual tagging and scheduling effort. “We can tag assets such as lampposts, street signs, traffic signals, etc., with specifics such as material of construction, location, height off the ground—essentially providing a DNA of the space,” he said. “The goal for now, is to use this solution to create some synergy with the tech companies already committed to the Smart Cities project.”
Life Made Better
Indeed, what Lane and the Gwalia team hope to accomplish as a result of their initial scanning session in Brownsville, is the creation of a dimensionally correct platform which will be useable both by each partner involved in the project and, eventually, by the general public. The resultant model will be scalable to the entire NYC metropolitan area and will be rich in elements that are tagged and scheduled.
“The initial platform we present to the Smart Cities team will be a beta version which will display sufficient information for them to understand and embrace the concept before we commit to further development,” said Lane. “We know that the long-term goal will be to commission all of Manhattan. For now, however, this is a chance to display our capability and allow them to see all the possibilities that exist. Most non-survey people don’t realize the many ways that a GLS-2000—in the right hands—can be valuable; this is a huge step toward opening some eyes.”
In the course of conducting the scanning for the pilot project, Lane and Bell became aware of many other areas in which the technology could prove invaluable. Of particular note during their visit to the Brownsville area was the relatively poor condition of the roads and sidewalks. Without knowing it, they had arrived at the metaphorical place that Topcon calls the “Intersection of Infrastructure and Technology”—the point at which construction productivity can be improved by applying advanced positioning technology. Lane cited a recent project they did as offering similarities in the solution that could be applied to address the road issue.
“We recently did some work for British cycling in an outdoor velodrome,” said Lane. “The British standards for track deviation are something like three millimeters over the course of two meters. So we scanned the course and created a mesh in the software, then went back three months later and re-scanned the same area. By overlaying the two meshes and using a color-based indicator to show changes, we were able to immediately spotlight any deviation that had occurred. That same approach could easily be used to deal with area roads and sidewalks.”
Smart from the Beginning
For now, though, Gwalia is focusing on the project at hand and the leap forward that the Smart Cities concept represents. The model for the Neighborhood Innovation Lab currently underway in Brownsville, was first announced in September 2015, in conjunction with then-President Obama’s Smart Cities Initiative. Neighborhood Innovation Labs are a public-private partnership led by the NYC Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation, New York City Economic Development Corporation, and NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress.
“Rapid technological advances hold the potential to transform our cities, driving quality of life improvements for millions of New Yorkers,” said Miguel Gamiño, chief technology officer for the City of New York. “Our challenge—and responsibility—is to ensure these technologies reach and benefit all New Yorkers, not merely a select few. Neighborhood Innovation Labs represent an important step toward fulfilling Mayor de Blasio’s vision for a stronger, more sustainable, resilient, and equitable future.”

Lane said that, when he attended the Smart Cities conference, he heard from a Brooklyn woman who spoke about problems they were having with trash collection. She was wanting to get more information on how any of this technology might apply to that situation. Her question, of course, got Lane’s creative juices flowing.

“We could drive an area with a Topcon IP-S3 mobile scanner, then tag and schedule all the bags of rubbish that we scanned,” he said. “Out of the ordinary? Sure, but a car driving the streets of New York scanning bags of rubbish—and subsequently tagging them in the data—could be a the makings of a valuable database to the right customer.”
And it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow with the locals.