It's all change

Editorial Type: Opinion Date: 2018-03-01 Views: 1,266 Tags: CAD, Information Management, Infrastructure, IFS PDF Version:
David Chadwick discusses the role of information management in future infrastructure planning with Colin Beaney at IFS

I had an interesting chat with Colin Beaney of IFS recently, where we discussed some of the issues that are set to change the way we do things, and how the construction industry must start planning for a vastly different future - in particular those parts of it dealing with infrastructure, which is Colin's speciality at IFS.

Being still in the grips of a particularly foul winter at the time, we spoke first about the growth of renewable energy sources, to cover current needs and the prospect of dramatically increasing demand in the future. Wind generated electricity and solar panel arrays are coming on line in a substantial way, but the intention to phase out carbon based vehicles In the near future will place additional burdens on electricity supplies. But we get ahead of ourselves.

Colin started by winding me up - telling me that his house basks in an average temperature of 22 degrees, year round, for a fraction of the amount I currently pay EDF. He explained that his house is heated by ground source heating - the drilling of a couple of 80m holes through which water is pumped, raising temperatures gradually by a few degrees, reversing refrigeration principles.

An efficient use of energy, but he compounded this by describing the advances in battery technology which some energy companies see as off-peak power sources, based on the assumption that an all-electric car environment will have huge energy resources sitting in driveways, fully charged, overnight. The energy companies are looking into ways that they could dip into these batteries, without affecting your ability to drive away, fully charged again, in the morning.

More efficient and cheaper batteries with greater storage capabilities will encourage the democratisation of electricity, with those able to produce and store it benefitting from sharing it with other users.

The problem with that, explained Colin, is that although we have improved our ability to generate electricity from different renewable resources, we lack the means to distribute it effectively. We are witnessing the phasing out of carbon technology - diesel first of all, followed by petrol - with the aim of producing all-electric road transport within the next two decades. That will hike up the demand for electricity, and force us to rationalise its availability for all.

We concurred that Petrol stations will probably disappear, to be replaced by charging facilities within supermarket car parks, at workplaces and kerbsides, mimicking the old, single vehicle parking meters. The development of driverless vehicles, car sharing schemes and greater reliance on public transport will have an impact on electricity requirements, but that will be cancelled out by another unique and weird phenomenon that's currently causing huge problems because of its massive power requirements, namely data mining.

Data mining and the creation of digital currency systems rely on massive computer permutations to process the huge calculations that underlie the unique access codes required to process the coinage, each transaction requiring the sharing of information between several hundred computers.

Still in its infancy, the security aspects of data mining are being considered as viable cyber security weapons in other secretive industries and organisations.

No pun intended (although it is a serious issue) the development of driverless vehicles will have a profound impact on the way we live, urban planning, the transport infrastructure, and how we manage information - which is why future developments hold so much interest for IFS.

Autonomous vehicles can follow a route, drive along the road adhering to highway regulations, and react to vehicles, people and other obstacles by generally avoiding them. But that misses a trick by a wide margin. They will come into their own by tapping into the city's 3D model, and using AI, together with thousands of other connected vehicles, giving the autonomous vehicles the information they need to plot the quickest and most convenient routes between two points.

The trend toward online shopping for groceries and other goods will accelerate as fewer people will own cars, and online deliveries will commence in warehouses with order-picking robots, delivered by autonomous vehicles, utilising the latest routing information, 24 hours a day. The first casualties of this autonomous revolution will be harassed and overworked delivery and courier drivers working for companies like Hermes and DHL etc.

So, here's a question for you. Why are companies like Google talking about developing their own autonomous vehicles? It might be a fresh market, but the main reasons people run cars are to pick up the weekly groceries, commuting to work and taking holidays. If the need to own an expensive lump of metal is reduced, then people will join carsharing schemes or rely on improved public transport systems. There are two simple answers - companies like Google and Amazon will have access to the huge amount of personal information that they will reap from their customers, and the ability to widen the audience for the billions of dollars' worth of advertising revenues they pick up from the adverts they run online. Imagine booking an autonomous taxi using your mobile, and discovering that the fare to get you from A to B is relatively cheap, but heavily subsidised by the onboard entertainment system which has your undivided attention for the whole of your journey.

While the technologies that enable renewable energies and driverless vehicles steam ahead, the real driver that makes them viable is the availability of the huge amount of information they need. It will provide wider and more diverse methods of producing and distributing electricity, to sample, forecast and reroute it through a complex nationwide web, and for autonomous vehicles to create connected swarms of intelligent cars, lorries and buses, which will use AI to plot routes taking into account the movements of other vehicles.

We have no problem accumulating the information that such systems will need. What we will have problems with is sorting out the useful information from the chaff. Information management will be a fascinating vocation for anyone entering the computer industry as, mishandled, it starts to control our lives, with the recent Facebook and Cambridge Analytica revelations standing as prime examples.

Information management is also the focus of much of the resources that IFS has embedded in its applications, going well beyond the requirements of BIM, and developing solutions around efficient management of asset information for the maintenance of infrastructure and construction projects worldwide.

Why so much interest in future technologies right now? That's a simple question to answer. Ten years ago, many of the technologies we are seeing coming to fruition today were still considered science fiction. In another ten years they will be prevalent and presaging yet further developments. The construction industry plans at least a decade ahead, and builds for multiple decades. All major construction projects, therefore, have to consider the changing environments for infrastructure, urban living and people's living and working habits, and factor it into their city plans.

It was a fascinating discussion, but we could have extended it further to cover transport plans for the industry, the inevitable growth of public transport, and the slow pace of change in the railway industry (save for Crossrail). Nor did we have time to cover the conflict between urban housing development, global warming and sustainable housing, with problems like those faced by the water utilities, who have to consider that we have enough water, but not necessarily in the right place at the right time.

We both agreed, though, that we are on a rapidly accelerating escalator, with technology advances acting as a catalyst for major demographic and social changes. And, according to Colin, some of the biggest changes will occur in Infrastructure developments, as we try to balance energy resources with changing energy requirements, and to upgrade the road and rail infrastructure to service the demands of urban populations who live and shop online, and share driverless vehicles when they need to emerge from their crowded condos.

Information management is the key. Google can handle trillions of pages of data. The management of a smart city, involving analytics, demographics and transport management is small beer in comparison.