From machine control to data management

Managing data is the key to driving efficiency across the future infrastructure lifecycle.  Antony Oliver speaks to Topcon’s David Bennett about how the world of global positioning is evolving.

Topcon Machine Control

The future of surveying and positioning technology in the infrastructure world rests squarely on the ability of professionals to manage data to embrace the new workflows and processes required to really maximise value for clients.

It is, says David Bennett, business manager at Topcon, really about changing the way that design, construction and asset management professionals work – spending less time in the field to capture more data and having the ability to analyse and use the information later.

That process increasingly sees the use of technologies such as unmanned aircraft and miniature helicopters but is also based around increasingly sophisticated developments in machine control – now capable of guiding grading and material laying and compaction equipment to millimetre accuracy.  

“One of the key things when trying to drive the industry towards this new way of thinking is to pull together the key stakeholders to explain the benefits of better managed data,” explains Bennett.

“It is often as simple as putting the designers behind a machine to help them to understand the process of what can now be achieved using this technology.”

“We are increasingly now seeing clients on road projects actually specifying the use of machine control technologies.”

David Bennett, Topcon

Key markets for Topcon right now are road and rail, not only because of the vast amounts now being invested in these sectors but also because these sectors are changing rapidly towards data driven maintenance regimes to help drive efficiency into the management and operation of assets.

Not least as Network Rail moves towards its ambitious goal of a digital railway – Topcon recently took part in a rail innovation day to help the industry to understand how machine control and digital mobile mapping can transform processes.

And in the roads sector Topcon is part of the engagement forum set up by Highways England to help to drive forward the take up of new technology as well as working on research projects in Germany.

Through the Highways England construction plant community meetings the organisation is engaging with the supply chain in innovative ways to ensure that new developments are incorporated where appropriate. For example on the junction 19 improvement of the M1  contractor Skanska has used machine controlled equipment. 

“We are increasingly now seeing clients on road projects actually specifying the use of machine control technologies,” he concludes pointing out that there is a clear shift in drivers - today it is more likely that use of new technology will be driven top down by the client rather than upwards by the earthwork subcontractor.

“In many ways it is easier for these decisions to come down from the top,” explains Bennett. 

Clients like Highways England and Network Rail are, explains Bennett, now increasingly understanding the value of 3D modelling tools and progressing from initial machine control technologies to more embrace more innovative mobile mapping to boost efficiency in operation and maintenance of assets.

But it is also now filtering into smaller specialist client such as Scottish housing contractor Gavin Brown Contracts, which is embracing the use of laser and robotic total station technologies, to simplify the measurement and recording of work carried out on site.

“It starts by introducing the concept,” explains Bennett. 

“By saying here is what we can do today then working together to understand where we can go in the future. We are trying to do a great deal to help educate clients to what is possible.”

That might include programmes such as Topcon’s operator academies which give hands on practical experience to help both drivers and designers to make better use of the technology.

Of course the use of aerial surveying equipment – both automated fixed wing for mapping and remote controlled helicopters for inspection – are becoming increasing the norm in the sector. 

But as technology evolves with laser scanning merging with photogrammetry and software to create models from digital images, the whole field is rapidly changing to become less about the machines and more about managing and manipulating the data that they collect.

“The key is to find how you can extract greater value for clients from the data that is gathered,” David Bennett, Topcon

For Topcon that that means there will inevitably be a great deal more focus in future on helping clients to develop systems that perhaps start in the planning and surveying phase then progress to the construction phase and beyond.

For example on Crossrail the firm is working with BBMV, a joint venture comprising of leading construction companies Balfour Beatty, ALPINE BeMo Tunnelling, Morgan Sindall and VINCI Construction, to build the station tunnels at Whitechapel and Liverpool Street station.

Topcon’s remote sensor system for the tunnels and compensation grouting has evolved as the project has grown. Embedding the technology into the finished works is the next step to help to continue to deliver value throughout the operation and maintenance of assets.

Similarly on major projects that are in the planning stages, Topcon is involved in the design and construction of new corridors, gathering topographical data and providing the software solution to optimise the earthworks. 

The future, says Bennett, is one where professionals will increasingly be hardware agnostic. “Increasingly it is all about the data and how you manage the software – people are less bothered about who makes the hardware.”

Collaboration with firms such as Autodesk underlines this strategy to drilling deep into digital, yet Bennett also points out that with standardised data protocols now underpinning BIM, even the data is starting to become software agnostic.

“The key is to find how you can extract greater value for clients from the data that is gathered,” he says.

Case Study: Crossrail

to build the station tunnels at Whitechapel and Liverpool Street station. Topcon has been working with the contractor on the £250M project to first establish a baseline against which any surface movement could be compared and then set up a system which enables all surface movements to be continuously compared throughout four years of construction. Data from measurements is taken every 15 minutes and if any movement has been detected, established trigger values are consulted and the construction process altered accordingly. 

For details visit

Case Study: 3D Layout Navigation

3D Layout Navigation – with Gavin Brown Contracts, using of laser and robotic total station technologies, to simplify the measurement and recording of work carried out on site. The LN-100 uses a wireless connection to a hand-held touch screen tablet controller allowing one person to operate the instrument, locking on to a hand-held prism to instruct the user which way to move to locate the point to be set out. For small contractors like Gavin Brown the simplicity of operation means that little operator experience or specialist skills are required to embrace the power of technology and access the benefits of Building Information Modelling. 

For details visit

Case Study: A11 Resurfacing

A11 resurfacing – working with Balfour Beatty’s to use mmGPS machine control. Having trialled the Topcon precision GPS navigation equipment on conventional pavers to lay subgrade material on a section of the A46 dual carriageway near Newark, Nottinghamshire, Balfour Beatty is now using the system on the £102M contract to upgrade the A11 north east of Cambridge. Advanced works began in June 2012 to prepare the A11 site and full construction commenced on the 24 January 2013. Topcon’s mmGPS is a laser enhanced GNSS (Global Navigation

Satellite System) to give a more versatile and accurate positioning solution for fine grading, layout, paving as well as curb & gutter and finish elevation staking. 

For details visit

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