Using Aerial Intelligence for Virtual Site Walkthroughs

By Zachary Powers

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to challenge our most basic business operations, forcing companies to be agile, adaptive, and find alternative solutions to keep projects on time and on target.

Under regular circumstances, a bid walk enables contractors to physically survey a site, gather information, ask questions, and assess the scope and size of a project. When the pandemic struck, most physical bid walks were delayed or cancelled. An essential practice for the assessment of scope was nearly impossible to resume without risking the health and safety of everyone involved. What we needed was an alternative to a physical site walkthrough that would provide the same benefits as the real thing.

GHD Digital wanted to create a solution that would ensure project continuity, even with physical distancing measures in place. Using a combination of aerial and ground technology, we created a virtual bid walk solution that allows us to perform inspections and condition assessments of assets safely and effectively.

Enabled by unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), drone imagery, surveillance modelling, and a GoPro Max 360 camera, we now provide prospective contractors access to the project site while keeping everyone physically distanced and safe. Instead of an entire team physically walking the manufacturing site, a single employee and a member of the project team can now conduct the entire site walkthrough gathering 360-degree video and audio of the entire event.

A recording is then made available online to all bidding contractors and the client’s staff, allowing viewers of the virtual bid walk to conduct regular site meetings through a web-based platform to review the site discuss details and features of the project.

Our virtual solution is made up of four key components:

1. Assessment: Addressing Needs in Advance

For GHD Digital’s Aerial and Ground Intelligence (AGI) team, understanding client requirements is only the first step. When it comes to any UAS or virtual site walkthrough project, we must understand the current scope of the project while also anticipating what may be needed in the future. From this lens, site assessments become much more than writing notes and taking pictures.

Before focusing on site assessment deliverables, it’s important to understand what data will be needed in the long-term. Our team of drone operators can efficiently conduct a flyby and provide a snapshot of any site. Aerial and Ground Intelligence specialists must assess and focus on what is currently visible as well as what can be highlighted and expanded on as the project continues. If a project team is on site conducting a flyby, it only makes sense from a project longevity standpoint to capture as much information as possible, thereby enabling 3D modeling and animation if needed.

In a recent project, GHD Digital was tasked with providing detailed data about a certain river segment. Using drone-enabled capabilities, our team provided a full understanding of the river, instead of the single segment, helping us to anticipate potential future concerns and prevent additional resources that would be spent surveying the river in the future.

2. Capture: An Efficient and Holistic Site Understanding

In a different project, a client recently reached out to GHD Digital to conduct a site visit at an environmentally sensitive site which ran the risk of being cancelled because of COVID-19. We quickly deployed an operator trained in drone and ground data capture techniques and live-streamed the site walkthrough, including 360-degree video of the site. Drone imagery was then processed and delivered as a current and high-definition site map and model. As a result, the client and their stakeholders were able to receive an immense amount of information without leaving the safety of their homes.

In this case, the AGI operator captured all data needed in just a few hours, providing all videos, maps, and models the next day without risking physical interaction. Through capabilities like Aerial Mapping and Modeling (rapidly generated maps and models that provide intel on site conditions), Aerial Surveys (dense and accurate data point clouds for deeper site intelligence), and Aerial Thermography (infrared imaging to detect anomalies), complete sites can be captured quickly and efficiently.

3. Create: Visualizing the Past, Predicting the Future

Multiple layers can be added to captured drone footage to create an unparalleled perspective of the virtual walkthrough. Whether it’s 3D structures, subsurface interpolations, labelling, or potential future use visuals, 3D models or animations can be overlaid to bring the walkthrough to life. This makes the captured drone footage dynamic and multi-dimensional. Most importantly, these technologies allow us to predict future changes and potential challenges, all while also maintaining a complete view of their project days, weeks, months, and years in the past.

During the pandemic, GHD Digital also began working on a project with a major manufacturing client to conduct daily UAV scanning. UAV footage has existed in the past and clients have used it to understand how their sites change overtime. However, comparing unplanned UAV footage only provides a superficial understanding of the site. With our current client, we are proactively collecting information with the intent of understanding changes and potential challenges that will naturally occur over time.

If an unintended challenge were to arise at a client’s site any time in the future – like a major disaster, a fire or a building demolition – a virtual site walkthrough would make it possible to show the entire site with details that show incremental changes, even if they occur on a day-by-day basis. A simple fly-over would not be able to capture important changes to the site. Theoretically, we would be able to understand how a structure failed, where a pipe burst or where a fire started. Most importantly, we would be able to understand and enact preventative measures for the site’s safety and longevity.

4. Deliver: Maximizing Data to Mitigate Concerns

With the virtual site walkthrough complete, including drone imagery and any additional visualization, site data can be further amplified through GHD Digital’s digital twin and asset management platform. This platform is a modern cloud-based solution with hundreds of use cases, including managing and reducing health and safety risk, site security, asset maintenance planning, scenario planning, and more. The technology can mimic the real world by integrating smart technologies that can be viewed on one platform. This platform also allows multiple types of data, whether visual or numerical, to be stored in a “one-world” environment for easy access and seamless integration to client processes.

Right now, clients are struggling to understand their site walkthroughs, as most of their data, images and results are often in different locations. This platform is specifically built to enable surveillance projects, like a virtual site walkthrough, and enable rapid access to data easily and intuitively.

After the virtual site walkthrough is complete, the platform provides several features that help understand the data collected. For example, the platform can be used to conduct non-invasive inspections to clearly track and record remediation. An Asset Management Interface can embed photographs and comments to facilitate a prompt resolution from the client or stakeholder. There are several use cases for this platform that can amplify the data collected from the initial virtual site walkthrough.

An All-Encompassing Virtual Site Walkthrough

Our virtual solution has enabled our clients to obtain the crucial site information they require to complete their bids. A unique combination of aerial and ground intelligence has allowed us to assess project sites without risking of exposure to COVID-19, all while saving money and meeting deadlines.

Conducting a virtual bid walk allows us to not only assess the current needs of our clients, but also gather future-focused data to anticipate their needs down the road. In the future, the benefits of this type of sustainable and efficient solution will open the door to countless other possibilities.


Zachary Powers leads the Aerial and Ground Intelligence team at GHD Digital.

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