Location and spatial data can improve productivity, safety, and surveying for heavy civil construction.

By Joshua Progar

Does the phrase “over schedule and over budget” sound familiar to you? Unfortunately, if you work in heavy civil construction, it probably does. While the segment struggles with issues that plague the entire construction industry — such as labor shortage and slow technology adoption — it also has unique challenges arising from the nature of infrastructure work. Projects often take place across very large distances and in environments that lack internet access for connectivity such as underground, outside, or underwater. In these situations, workers typically need more connectivity to their offices and to their managers than say, commercial builders, but they usually have less of it.

This dynamic might help explain why large infrastructure projects cost 80 percent more than budgeted and run 20 months late on average, according to IHS Markit. With taxpayer dollars helping fund these projects, the additional time and money spent has to be minimized.

The heavy civil segment can recapture some of that time and money with the latent communication capabilities GPS provides. GPS signatures provide coordinates pinpointing the exact location of a given subject. This location tracking, which works offline as well, can help create a record of where project workers and equipment are at any given time, and enables a wealth of time and money-saving capabilities.

There are at least three reasons why GPS is important for heavy civil construction.

Increase productivity

Understanding the link between GPS and productivity can be a bit of a head scratcher. How can just knowing where people and equipment are increase efficiency and output?

For one, managers and workers can better maintain budgets. Contract workers like those on civil infrastructure projects are often paid by the hour, and if each worker is identifiable through a GPS signature, both parties can maintain an automated record of how many hours are worked onsite; managers can ensure workers are paid accurately for their time onsite, and workers can ensure they are paid thoroughly. The transparency and accountability that GPS helps establish for payments also helps strengthen working relationships to reduce time and money spent on conflict resolution related to payments.

Additionally, project teams can save time using GPS. By coupling GPS with sensors, project managers and field workers can view where equipment and vehicles are located at all times. This tracking can help them ensure equipment and vehicles are readily available whenever and wherever they are needed, avoid traffic, and maximize fuel economy on large projects where long distance travel is required.

Enhance safety measures

Conditions in heavy civil construction are often dangerous for workers and others who may come in contact with the project. Jobsites can include major earthmoving, exposed electric and gas lines, threats of potential collapse underwater and underground, inclement weather, and lack of mobile or internet connectivity.

In conditions where communication capabilities are stifled, safety measures are imperative. GPS, which also works offline, can serve as a communication tool enabling safety. Having access to site workers’ location and movement data can help alert office staff when workers encounter emergency or dangerous conditions. It can also help facilitate the use of alerts for workers themselves, notifying them when approaching hazardous areas such as structures that haven’t been reinforced, or traveling too far away from areas that potentially require timely attention, such as concrete pour sites requiring periodic adjustments.

Improve site surveying and recording

Given the sheer size of many heavy civil projects, it can be difficult to chart progress. This is particularly true during the preconstruction phase when there aren’t any visual markers identifying locations across the work site. GPS provides the spatial context needed to pinpoint a particular location.

For example, imagine a highway project where teams have to identify unique locations across tens of miles that have many visual similarities. If teams are able to reference GPS signatures on digital site images, they can easily recognize where work needs to take place on the ground during the preconstruction phase, and then where work has been completed during the construction phase. What’s more, construction software can automatically link the images as references in digital plans so what might otherwise be guesswork becomes a useful system for showcasing specific areas of progress.

Images with GPS signatures also help workers and management avoid traveling hundreds of miles to survey remote jobsites because they can do so digitally and adjust plans as necessary from wherever they are.

Additionally, gathering a record of images appended with GPS signatures is useful for project hand-off. These records, also known as as-builts, are necessary for auditors to conduct ongoing maintenance on infrastructure during facilities management — tunnels and bridges, for example. GPS’s accuracy helps relieve auditor frustrations around comparing outdated drawings to existing infrastructure, and trying to solve for location-related discrepancies, especially when so much of the infrastructure gets buried or covered in concrete. As-builts also become easier to create because site images can automatically be grouped together by their GPS signatures.

Bottom line about GPS

Like professionals in other industries and other construction segments, heavy civil construction experts need the best value on the shortest timelines. In fact, they need this more than other industries and segments, given that funding often comes at the expense of taxpayers. GPS enables them to do just that. When applied appropriately to construction technology, GPS is critical to improving project efficacy through productivity, safety, and detail-tracking.

Joshua Progar is the lead customer advocate at PlanGrid (www.plangrid.com). He studied architectural engineering, joined the construction industry as an architect, and later became a construction manager. His passion for technology, innovation, and process improvement for the construction industry led him to PlanGrid, where he works with the sales team to ensure clients are using the product to its full potential.