Picture this: A survey technician is attempting to complete a 3D model in a culvert with confined space. With very limited entry and exit points, crawling through this space under normal conditions would be nearly impossible. And now a major rainstorm is headed his way, making this a very unpredictable and dangerous situation. After one of RETTEW’s survey crews faced this situation on a recent worksite, they decided to develop a solution for future, similar scenarios.

It wasn’t long before that scenario presented itself! Our client was seeking 3D scans and modeling of culverts they intended to replace. RETTEW’s Survey teamknew they could perform a certain level of services with manpower alone, however they would need to go beyond typical surveying approaches to fully accommodate the client’s needs. That solution was a customizable and low-cost remote-control platform (RCP) for data collection.

Surveyors at RETTEW leveraged common technology to develop an innovative solution that met our client’s needs. With remote sensing and data collection devices, this tool increases the efficiency and safety of many difficult tasks. Whether in culverts and sewers, hazardous industrial facilities, or virtually any other confined space, the versatile and waterproof RCP can be modified for the site and outfitted with project-specific devices to ensure accurate and safe confined-space surveys. The data capture platform offers a mobile solution when traditional surveying methods cannot be applied due to compact spaces or a lack of entry/exit points. The mobile platform is designed to navigate confined spaces, eliminate dangerous circumstances for survey crews, and reduce risks on projects.

The Challenges of Confinement

While surveying has come a long way over the years, there is, of course, still room for growth and improvement. Many factors in surveying are difficult to anticipate, yet they need to be addressed and accommodated. Limited access to entry and exit points in confined spaces can pose major hinderances to the project completion. The lengthy culvert in which RETTEW was working had unpredictable curves and undulations. The clearance was small, around 2 ½ feet high by 6 feet wide, and the surveyors were prepared to run into the unexpected, such as wildlife or hazardous waste. RETTEW surveyors were positioned at the beginning of the culvert, which was the only inlet for the first 400 feet. Confined spaces can be incredibly deceptive. What appears to be safe space can be filled with toxic vapors, like methane, and can lack oxygen. In fact, the United States Department of Labor reports there are an average of 92 confined space-related fatalities per year.

Heavy rains often cause culverts to flood, making it not only a hazardous situation, but also a difficult environment in which to perform work. That can lead to lower productivity and missed deadlines. In the scenario described above, it would take several days for a surveyor to crawl through a culvert such as this. Delivering quality services on time is crucial to a good client relationship.

An Innovative Solution

Developed by RETTEW’s Survey team to accommodate precise client needs, the versatility of the surveying RCP increases the number of services you can provide (think of a plug-and-play system).

All data-capture devices installed on the RCP can be removed and replaced with devices better suited to fulfill the diverse needs of various projects. In its current design, the RCP is outfitted with three cameras: a high-resolution camera on opposite ends and a 360-degree panoramic camera in the center. Lighting is installed on all four sides of the RCP to support clearer data-collection. An onboard WiFi hotspot allows the RCP to be operated through a smartphone application. With a vehicle range of over a ¼ mile and a live video feed up to 300 feet, this RCP can map, document, and report on-site conditions in areas humans cannot reach. Data gathered can be static photographs, panoramic 3D photography, point clouds, photorealistic 3D models, and critical measurements. One of RETTEW’s deliverables on the culvert project required providing pictures every 10 feet and accurate locations of underground obstacles, such as pipes and inlets. This is where the 360-degree panoramic camera becomes a game changer in completing deliverables. The data produced by the panoramic camera made it possible to determine potential hinderances and provided the client with a first-person view of the structure.

While designing the RCP, RETTEW carefully considered georeferencing for distance, and not just mapping abilities. With a 360-degree prism attached, along with a survey instrument to geolocate, the RCP can identify distance and aid in stitching data together for model creation. Measuring 22 inches long by 15 inches wide by 16 inches tall, the RCP performs well in tight spaces. It can comfortably explore a space about three feet in diameter or larger, but it can potentially fit through a 24-inch pipe – the bare minimum through which the RETTEW Survey team could maneuver the RCP.

Low Risk, High Opportunity

This technology provides the ability to move beyond obstacles when initially faced with a challenging situation. For example, when you encounter drone restrictions on a jobsite, a resourceful alternative is to send the RCP out onto a structure needing inspected, particularly because of the RCP’s lightweight nature. Surveyors can gather robust data in areas normally out of reach, or where it would require a long time to complete it manually, to minimize risk for employees. Structures over bodies of water can also be explored with the RCP’s instrument array secured onto a small, remote-controlled pontoon boat, or HyDrone. The RCP can independently maneuver through water up to 6 inches deep without submerging, but securing this technology to the HyDrone allows exploration across deeper waters.

This RCP technology supports a high level of quality work while enabling a wider array of services at the site. Detachable devices not only aid the RCP’s versatility, but also enable significant cost savings by allowing individual parts to be used separately on other worksites, reducing the need for investing in duplicate devices. RETTEW’s survey RCP preserves manpower by helping surveyors avoid crawling through confined spaces for extended periods of time and protecting them from potential unknown hazards within the area being explored.

This RCP also enables surveyors to collect more data for the same fee, if not less than what the service would originally cost. It’s often not any more cost-effective to use one type of technology over another in the survey market, but with this technology, it is.

The Next Generation of Data-Collecting Technology

The size and performance abilities of this RCP have increased the potential, productivity, and safety for surveyors while reducing the overall costs. However, the survey market is nowhere near done advancing. As this sort of technology matures, the market will continue to evolve and embrace new forms. Technology is a tool, but it’s the surveyors themselves who make the difference in the market. The RCP is another solution to the numerous challenges surveyors may face. Each step forward is allowing for faster and easier production of high-quality deliverables.