Eliminating Uncertainties and Improving Productivity in Mega Projects using Big Data and Artificial Intelligence

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A series of projects at the Bristol Business School combining cutting-edge digital technologies could potentially revolutionise the way industry tackles management of Mega Projects at the bidding stage. These innovative technologies include Artificial Intelligence (AI), Big Data, Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR).

Professor Lukumon Oyedele and his team of developers have created software that harnesses the power of big data and artificial intelligence to help companies accurately plan and execute Mega Projects (large-scale, complex ventures that typically cost hundreds of millions of pounds).

The software uses advanced analytics to predict a whole range of complex project parameters such as three-points estimates, tender summaries, cash flow, project plans, risks, innovations, opportunities, as well as health and safety incidents.

The project, whose flagship simulation tool is called Big-Data-BIM, is part of a partnership with leading UK construction contractor Balfour Beatty, to help it plan better power infrastructure projects involving the construction of overhead lines, substations and underground cabling. By using the software, the company is able to improve productivity and maximise profit margins.

“When planning a tender for a project, companies often plan for a profit of 10 to 15 percent, but on finishing the project, many struggle to make two percent profit margin,” says Professor Oyedele, who is Assistant Vice-Chancellor and Chair Professor of Enterprise and Project Management.

“The reason is that there are many unseen activities, which are hard to capture during the early design stage. Besides, the design process itself is non-deterministic. This is why when you ask two quantity surveyors how much a project is likely to cost; they often produce different figures.

“With Big-Data-BIM, we are bringing in objectivity to plan the projects and taking care of uncertainties by engaging advanced digital technologies, so that a tender estimate remains accurate until project completion, with minimal deviation from what was planned at the beginning.”

The tool taps into 20 years of Balfour Beatty’s data on power infrastructure projects and learns predictive models that inform the most optimal decisions for executing the given work. The tool informs the business development team at the beginning of the project whether it is likely to succeed or fail.

One of the functions of the software is to create a 3D visual representation of project routes to understand complexity, associated risks (like road and river crossings) and opportunities (such as shared yards and local suppliers). For this purpose, the software taps into Google Maps data and integrates data from the British Geological Survey and Ordnance Survey to discover automatically the number of roads, rivers, and rail crossings.

The tool performs extensive geospatial analysis to find out the optimal construction route and measure distances between route elements with a high degree of accuracy. “This all happens within a twinkle of an eye. Without leaving your office, you can determine the obstacles on the planned route of the cables, or whether there is a river in the way,” says Professor Oyedele.

By mining the huge datasets of health and safety incidents, the software can also determine what kind of injuries might occur on a project, and even produce a detailed analysis of the most probable body parts that could be prone to injury. This can help prepare an accurate health and safety risk assessment before the work begins.

The software provides an intuitive dashboard called “Opportunity on a page” where all predictions are visualised to facilitate data-driven insights for designers to make critical planning decisions.

As a contractor, Balfour Beatty uses the tool to enable it to submit the best bids to clients so that it can have a high chance of winning them. The software is also set to be provided for other industries carrying out linear projects. These are to include water distribution networks, and the rail, roads, as well as oil and gas sectors.

 

£6.5m project aims to drive digital innovation in the South West

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A project worth £6.5million is being launched across the South West to expand the use of digital technologies throughout the region’s creative, health and manufacturing sectors.

The new Creative Technology Network will bring together universities and industrial partners, pooling their research and innovation expertise to develop cutting-edge practices, techniques and products in creative digital technologies.

Supported by a grant from RESEARCH ENGLAND, and led by the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol), the three-year project is a partnership with Watershed in Bristol, Kaleider in Exeter, Bath Spa University, the University of Plymouth and Falmouth University.

UWE Bristol Professor Jon Dovey is leading the project for the DCRC

As new technology, including automation and big data, raises new challenges and opportunities for businesses, this partnership is designed to respond to industry needs across the health and manufacturing sectors and the creative industries, driving productivity and resilience.

The grant is part of RESEARCH ENGLAND’s Connecting Capabilities Fund, which supports university collaboration and encourages commercialisation of products made through partnerships with industry. The funding will kick-start the project, which begins in April.

Professor Martin Boddy, who is Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Business Engagement at UWE Bristol, said, “We are immensely proud to be taking the lead on this exciting project which builds on UWE Bristol’s vision to work with partners to enhance innovation across the region and nationally. This new network will stimulate the regional economy and will undoubtedly lead to new products and new ways of working, all thanks to shared research experience and technical expertise.”

Professor Jon Dovey, who is Professor of Screen Media at the Faculty of Arts, Creative Industries, and Education at UWE Bristol and leading the project for the Digital Cultures Research Centre (DCRC) said, “This project will bring together the best and the brightest researchers in creative arts, technology and design to work with companies old and new to show what new kinds of value can be unlocked by the application of creative technologies.

“We are going to be working with immersive media, processes of automation and the new availability of big data to support business to find new ways of working with their customers and our citizens. Watch this space for the amazing new products and services we invent in the next three years.”

 

Passenger-carrying drones among us by 2030, says UWE Bristol expert

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Drone technology is in its infancy but in the not-too-distant future we are likely to see unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) perform actions like paint or clean, with the ability to visualise very small items like a hairline fracture in a building structure. This is according to Dr Steve Wright, who is Associate Professor in Aerospace Engineering at UWE Bristol and a drone expert. He also predicts that we could see freight and even passenger-carrying drones by 2030.

But there are still many challenges to overcome before these autonomous aircraft are reliable and trustworthy enough to be an integral part of our society, says Steve. In fact, he believes the technology needs to be improved by a factor of one million before it is safe enough.

The current big challenge is to programme a drone to navigate and fly autonomously through a cluttered environment, like a city, in a safe way, and we are still a long way off.

The MAAXX (Micro Aero Autonomous Extremes Europe) drone racing contest that Steve organises is the second iteration of Europe’s only indoor drone flying contest. The two-day UWE Bristol event on 23-24 March takes place in the University’s exhibition centre and sees several teams programme their UAVs to fly unaided around a designated track, with a hackathon for budding coders to programme a ‘house’ drone provided by the organisers.

As well as a useful day for industry to meet their peers, and a fun day for families (on the second day only), the event also contributes to driving forward the technology. Given they are part of a contest, the teams push drone development to their limits by finding solutions to UAVs veering off course, or not stopping in time.

Previous to his work in academia, Steve worked in the aerospace industry for over two decades. “I look at drones with the eye of someone who for 25 years has been helping to build systems in conventional aircraft and these are exciting times for UAV development.”

He explains that we are at the exact point in history as with conventional aircraft development in 1918 – exactly 100 years ago. Using the comparison, he says: “We are at the equivalent point in time where we know how the Wright Brothers were able to fly their plane, and have already built a Sopwith Camel [a war plane used in the First World War]. We can glimpse what a spitfire looks like, but still have no idea what aircraft will look like in 30 or 40 years.” As a result, we have a clean slate with UAVs, he adds, and still have so much to learn about and improve.

Interestingly, the technology is being developed from the bottom up, says Steve. “Some other similar technologies have been driven from the top down by large corporations, but this one is from the bottom up, by consumers, very much like the early days of the electronics operations.”

As for the future, says Steve, we are moving towards close-up imaging, whereby a drone will soon be able to detect minute structural faults on a bridge or building. We could also soon see drones that clean surfaces such as solar panels in the desert that become covered in sand.

Steve also predicts that as soon as 2030, we are likely to see drones carrying passengers as well as freight over short distances.

His biggest fear about the drone industry? “The trouble is that there are many people who know how to fly a drone and although they are often not reckless, many are unaware of the safety issues.  Those of us involved in the drone industry live in terror that somebody will cause a horrendous accident – this would shut us all down in a single afternoon.”