Alberta Construction Magazine: Ledcor, UofA researchers blend virtual with real world imagery for remote project management

Working with University of Alberta researchers, Edmonton-based Ledcor Group has developed a way to blend the virtual world of 3D models with real world imagery, giving the company a hands-on way to manage large infrastructure construction projects from off-site.

In addition to infrastructure and residential and commercial construction, Ledcor is heavily involved in various aspects of the energy sector, from oil and gas extraction and processing to pipeline construction.

In the past, Ledcor project engineers used digital photos and videos to capture site-specific information when designing, managing and building large projects. However, they were lacking an efficient way to store and retrieve the images. It also took time to match the images to their detailed 3D design drawings in order to be more precise in planning and proactive in finding potential problems.

They created a visualization platform that uses Google Earth to provide an easy-to-use digital tool that solves both problems. Ground photos taken by Ledcor engineers are now automatically time-stamped and geo-referenced, and easily combined with both Google Earth and drone footage, all of which are stored internally in a private platform.

The result is a true likeness of the physical environment surrounding a proposed construction site, and the designs are then overlaid on top, creating a virtual environment that all team members can access as they move through various stages of construction.

“For the first time, our researchers are addressing the challenging question of how to make the technology work in a dynamic, fast-moving domain like construction,” Ming Lu, a professor in the University of Alberta’s Civil and Environmental Engineering department, said in a statement.

Lu is overseeing the team of PhD-level researchers responsible for the unique application, whose ongoing work is funded by Mitacs, a not-for-profit organization working with 60 universities, thousands of companies and federal and provincial governments to advance innovation through research partnerships.

Seeing plans in real time and space 

“This tool allows us to understand a job inside and out very quickly,” added Rod Wales, vice-president, Operations at Ledcor. “One of the real advantages is that we’re able to see our plans in real time and space, as they’re being built, without having to travel to the site time and time again.”

The platform also allows for the sharing of information throughout the life cycle of a construction project, providing a snapshot at key intervals to support decision making related to estimating, planning and controlling.

Modelling time is shortened using 3D modelling software and because ground images can be easily retrieved and compared to live Google Earth views, project teams are able to compare planned models to structures as they’re built, making it possible to track progress remotely and make changes when necessary.

Ledcor is now applying the technology as the basis for a project management “war room” where everyone works collectively in the same digital environment, said Wales. “We can build our models, drop them into this mixed reality environment and very quickly see how everything works together,” he said. “Things jump out at us that we may not have seen otherwise and we can quickly make adjustments at the planning stage, saving time and money in the long run.”

Researchers are working to add embedded hyperlinks so that project managers can access relevant information at a glance. If a particular component is being built with concrete, for example, it can be tagged and linked to the corresponding documents outlining the characteristics of that concrete, such as strength test results or detailing design and quantity information.

“We started out with a simple idea to work on visualization,” added Wales. “Thanks to the Mitacs researchers, what we have now is stunning. What would have taken us years to accomplish on our own, we’ve done in months.”

By: Maurice Smith