Engineers can’t allow the future to over-run them. Governments and societies look to us to see into the future and address the issues before they happen.
The task of planning and constructing public infrastructure that will be relevant, robust and affordable in 30 years’ time, is coalescing with some incredible digital technologies that will help us not only plan and build the infrastructure, but operate, maintain and monitor it at a quality and cost we’ve never before seen.
What does this look like? I was told once that when assessing the condition of bridges in country areas, you begin by looking below the bridge and counting the bolts on the ground.
But to build a bridge now, powerful sensors can be integrated into the structure, 5G systems and Low-Power Wide-Area networks can transmit the data - very cheaply especially when the system is on solar and battery - and amazing software applications can collate the sensors’ data and build predictive maintenance models. This assists in the safety of the bridge and also extends its longevity and cuts maintenance costs. And the data helps engineers learn how to build better bridges in the future; through a ‘digital twin’ (a virtual model of the physical bridge), they can subject the digital bridge to a lifecycle of use… before a single vehicle travels over them.
It’s not only bridges: freeways, tunnels, fly-overs, airport runways, sea ports, buildings, sewer works, water systems, electricity grids, hydro dams, power stations, oil refineries and just about any infrastructure project you can think of, can benefit from digital technologies that include monitors tasked to scan and map infrastructure for everything from cracks and rust to rubbish and graffiti.
Australia has a long history developing the enabling technologies that optimise our assets. The Sydney Coordinated Adaptive Traffic System (SCATS) was developed in the 1970s and is now in use in over 40 countries, controlling traffic flows with the traffic light system. These days we refer to technologies like SCATS as Intelligent Transport Systems.
We can also transfer ideas and technology from other industry sectors. For a long time Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems have monitored manufacturing plants. When those sensors are hooked to the internet and combined with other data, you have the Internet of Things (IOT).
Over the last 18 months we have seen increasing application of machine learning in both design and operation of infrastructure. We now have over thirty projects utilising machine learning with some already allowing operators to identify patterns of issues and repeatable situations. Another related digital revolution enabling greater interaction with data is the growth in Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). Software vendors and data owners are providing more APIs so firms like Aurecon can build interfaces between projects, the public, our customers and broader stakeholder groups. We’re already doing it and the results are tremendous.
This is not just about concrete and microprocessors. The digital SMART infrastructure space is dynamic and engineering is changing with it. The most important response is not the integration of technology into infrastructure - because that’s already happening - but to ensure engineers, contractors and operators have the ability to maximise the digital tools at their disposal.
As my colleague Bill Cox – Aurecon’s Managing Director, Australia and New Zealand – highlights in a recent Linkedin post Building the Infrastructure workforce of tomorrow, today, based on his presentation to the AFR National Infrastructure Summit, the explosion in SMART Infrastructure means the skills of the people performing infrastructure roles into the future are going to be very different. And importantly, for engineering and infrastructure talent, their private and public sector employers, and the universities that are educating them, we have to recruit and train people now for what is coming.
Currently, 9 per cent of Aurecon’s workforce is devoted to digital capabilities, which we’re expecting to rise to 40 per cent. How will this happen? Already there’s an emphasis at some engineering schools, for graduates to have both engineering and digital qualifications.
We’ve also moved beyond qualifications and into personality, with our Eight Attributes, none of which are technical. They’re more about being resourceful, co-creative, engaging, an unconventional thinker, sense-maker, inquisitive, commercial, and being fearless.
As the need for digital capabilities on projects continues to rise, it could be that one day we might see that engineering and digital skills become non-negotiable entry-level requirements. In the future, an infrastructure professional will be defined by their outlook as much as their qualifications, judged on their thinking as much as knowledge.
This article was originally published on LinkedIn