September 24, 2019

IE2: Innovative Technologies

Tom Earp

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On this episode of Inside Engineering we talk with Tom Earp about the cool things he gets to do in his role as Innovative Technologies Manager and how he stays on top of what's next in the industry.

Inside Engineering untold stories
and fascinating people from the world of civil engineering. This is Episode 2, recorded in September 2019. "Innovative Technologies with Tom Earp" Inside Engineering is brought to you by RK&K. Learn more at rkk.com.

Welcome back to another episode of
Inside Engineering. We're here this week with a good friend of mine, the Innovative Technologies Manager at RK&K, Tom Earp. Tom, welcome to the podcast; we're excited to have you here today. Thanks Tim. I'm excited to be here. OK. So, Innovative Technologies Manager — that sounds it sounds like a cool title. Walk us through what that means because there's a lot of things that sound like they could fit under that umbrella.

What does it mean to be the Innovative
Technologies Manager? It means I get to play with all the fun toys. See, I knew it was a good title! No, actually it is a lot of fun. So that's that's the first part. So part of what I do involves working with with the GIS side of things, so geographic information systems, for those we don't know. Also, I get to play around drones; again that's part of the fun toys; augmented reality and virtual reality. So getting to to explore those technologies.

But really the biggest part of what I'm doing now
is making sure that firm-wide that we are looking forward we're looking ahead at kind of what's next. I mean that's a big part of what we do; we have to constantly be moving forward. You mentioned a few different technologies there in the description of what you're doing can you break down some of the technologies that you've had a chance to work with over the past couple of years, few years and and maybe even some things that looking forward are technologies that you know might be under evaluation or anything like that.

Sure, so we'll start with GIS; that's that's kind
of what I started doing. GIS has been around for a long long time, since the mid 60's actually, but in the last let's say five years the move to cloud — so moving GIS into the cloud — has been a huge game changer. So we we here at RK&K moved to the cloud about four or five years ago and really that's helped our field staff get their work done in the field using iPads and then just that cloud connection, kind of real time GIS has has been a really big technological innovation.

So that's one and that's again that's something
that's constantly evolving. More recently drones. So that's a hot topic. We've been working with drones for about two and a half years. So again we started off kind of looking at some different uses how we might use that kind of in marketing and then it's slowly becoming more and more adopted in other areas. So we're using it for construction inspection management type things so we're documenting sites, but we're also using it to provide some survey-like information.

So, point clouds, developing surface
models. So that's really kind of starting to take off. We're looking to do some bridge inspection work. So structure inspections, things like that. It's obviously a big safety issue when we're talking about getting people up on rigging and on snoopers. So being able to fly drone to do that I think we'll be more and more common as kind of we go to the future. Something else we looked at: augmented reality and virtual reality.

So again this is kind of some that we're just
starting to look at. So we've we've actually taken this technology out to some trade shows where we've been able to to demonstrate to clients and people at these shows kind of how we're we're using this right now and then what the possibilities are. So it's really exciting maybe to look at how you know those technologies might really help our clients because I think our clients don't really know yet kind of how they they want to use these technology. So those are things we're working on right now.

Down the road we're looking at AI and
machine learning. So that's another kind of hot area. Everyone's everyone's talking about AI and how how machines are going to kind of take over. Skynet. Yes. So we're looking at how we could possibly use these technologies here. You know there's there's definitely an application of this technology computer vision, looking at images and classifying what what the images are. So there's a lot of opportunity there as well.

That's some cool stuff. Let's walk through a
couple of those things because maybe we can talk a little more in depth about some of the specific applications. So you talked about drones. You've inspired me to get my drone pilot license recently, so that's that's exciting, but one of the opportunities that we have — and you and I have been out on a bunch of different flights together — but one of the opportunities we had recently was to test out, you mentioned inspections, and to test out some drone technology that would help increase the safety and efficiency of bridge inspections.

Can you tell us a little bit about that
opportunity that we had and sort of some of the challenges that those inspectors face compared to what the drone brings to the table? Sure. So obviously getting people up on a bridge that may be 150 feet off the ground. Which this one was. It was. You know there's there's a safety issue there right there. We've had here at RK&K people have been in danger during inspections. So that's part of it is a safety thing.

The other is, for this bridge inspection it took
them over a week to do it. So they had to have Maintenance of Traffic out for a whole week. Closing a lane down. Closing a lane down a bridge on a bridge. And you know I think if we were able to use the drone to do maybe some initial inspections or some some initial conditions fly through and then evaluate where we need to to actually get our hands on the bridge, that might help eliminate some of that that MOT that we needed for a week. You know on very busy roads that could be a huge time saver, money saver.

And an increase in safety for sure.
Absolutely. Anytime there's there's traffic management happening there's always an increased risk to to the workers and the travelers moving down the roadway. Yes that was that was a really cool opportunity. I mean you know we had guys, we had some folks on a snooper on the bridge and so anyone who doesn't know a snooper is a truck that has a big boom arm that booms a bucket under the bridge. So they're on the bridge looking at that. Then we had some other guys suspended from a wire sort of on a chair with a a winch.

They would literally just go up and down the
piers and and look at them real in-depth and with the drone we were able to take a high resolution camera, sit back a good distance from the from the pier, and capture imagery that can be used to make an evaluation of that. Yeah. So the other thing with the particular rigging for this pier that we were looking at the bridge inspector couldn't get the full width of this pier. They couldn't get out to measure a defect that was out towards the edge. They noted it, but they weren't actually able to measure it.

So we were able to take photos of
the entire structure, the entire pier structure, stitched them together and measure the actual size of the defect. And we were also able to do it much much faster. Yeah so time savings is another great way and using drones could could help these inspections where we're not spending as much time kind of in the rigging on the bridge. Right. There's also some cool technologies that you can attach to drones in terms of different kinds of cameras and stuff. You want to talk about some some of the different uses for those? Sure.

So for this particular bridge inspection that we
were just talking about we were testing out a zoom camera. So this camera had I want to say 30x optical zoom, 6x digital. So in our testing we were able to see objects over a mile and a half away and know the kind of what cars they were in and things like that. So really high end zooming. We were able to, when we're on the bridge, to see individual bolts way up. Again we were 150 feet below the bridge. So just using that zoom capability allows us to be farther away from the structure and then get really high detailed resolution images. So that was part of our testing.

Obviously we have regular cameras that we can use
and we did some of that while we were out there and that's just a regular regular camera that's on most consumer drones. We still like to do some more testing on other sensors. There's thermal sensors that we could we could look at. We have a drone right now, actually we were out flying it today, it has a multi-spectral sensor so it's doing infrared, so we can look at plant health and things like that. And that plant health in particular, we've had some work around relocating seagrass that I think we've used that technology.

We looked at it, this seagrass
happened to be underwater. So we were a little bit too far underwater to actually make it work for this but that was the intention. But with the right level of depth for that seagrass but this would be a good application. Potentially. Yeah potentially. You also mentioned AR, augmented reality. There's a lot of talk around AR and VR these days for a bunch of different uses. Can you give an example of what a use case might be for augmented reality inside of civil engineering? Sure.

One great use is getting shareholders
so or stakeholders involved in the process. So you can take a design and then we could get around a table and you can have multiple devices kind of looking at a model and interacting with it. So an example that we've done is we've done some bike lane alternative development, so we were able to take a few different bike lane alternatives put them into the AR goggles, in this case the Microsoft Hololens, put it out on the table and we can kind of cycle through them and discuss them in front of you know potential stakeholder.

So that's one great use case
for it. There's lots of others that we're also exploring. So at the trade show we were... Some of the trade shows we've been going to recently have been water/wastewater type trade shows. So pump stations. We're able to to show a design of a pump station. We can scale the model so you can see all the details inside and then again place that either on a table to discuss it or actually we've shot video where we placed it on a site full size.

So you could potentially go out to the site where
that pump station would be and actually visualize it and walk around or through the site. Absolutely. All in augmented reality. It's pretty cool. Yeah. So again a client could see what something might look like in the in the field before it was constructed. That's really neat. OK so we're doing all this stuff. There's really cool things that you get to do. I mean but at the end of the day it comes down to, 'how does this help our clients?' So how do the things you do help our clients or help our people, who then in turn help our clients? Sure.

Can you talk about that?
So let's talk internally first. So one of my roles is to kind of connect people that have good ideas on things that we might be able to do — technology we should be using. And connecting them with other people in the firm that have similar goals who are already working on this. So that way we're not working in silos. So connecting the right people is is a huge part of what I do. Facilitating that kind of startup of an idea and that's already happened since I started this role.

A great example of this is connecting some of
our CM folks in Florida who had a great idea for managing photos on a project with work that's going on here in Baltimore. So we've been able to connect them and kind of get a solution that works for everyone. So that's one way, internally. But that also benefits our clients, right? Because we're more efficient in managing our workflows we're more efficient managing photos. We're able to to perform better on a project.

So I think kind of that
internal win is a win for our clients. Absolutely. Yeah. I mean media asset management is increasingly a significant challenge of, where do you store this big media? How do you store it? How can you find it easily so that you can spend more time helping the client and less time looking for a picture or video of something? That is a really good example of connecting different ideas together.

So you're helping the clients, ok, but then,
I mean you have to know that what you're doing is a success or not so that you know whether or not to continue doing it and I think that's always a challenge no matter what field you're in. How do you measure the success of what you're doing? Yeah, that's kind of hard because sometimes you know how do you measure efficiency? Sometimes you can measure some but you can't. So in some cases where we're able to do more work in less time. So if we go back to the iPads, using them in the field to collect data right? Instead of writing all your information on a form and then coming back to the office and digitizing them in some way.

You're collecting it in that format right away.
So you know obviously hours spent, that's an efficiency gain. So that's one way that we can can measure kind of what we're doing, but how do we measure connecting people internally that that need to know about what we're working on? So that's a lot more challenging and I think you know we can we can measure that by just looking at the success of the project. So you know were we more successful in delivering this particular project? So that's one way.

You know if we're talking about drones, it could
be you know, again a time saving that's what were looking at, but safety. How do we measure safety? You know is it is a fewer accidents? Is it less time spent you know in a dangerous situation? It's a challenge sometimes a measure exactly what we're doing, but I think a lot of you know a lot of our technology advances that we're looking at are gonna be efficiency, efficiency savings, time savings, letting our staff work on the things that they're really good at instead of wasting time on things that they don't need to be doing.

Efficiency just spreads across,
across everything. I mean we're always, always looking for ways to be more efficient with something and do it better the next time and constantly learning, that sort of continuous innovation model I think is really important and it applies in your field a lot. Tom, sort of big picture question here, what's something that you are curious about right now? There's lots of things but I think one of the the big things I'm curious about is AI and machine learning.

I think this is...
this is coming. We all have to get used to it and some of us are already dealing with this now even though we may not know it. So one example is you know like if you get if you get targeted by an ad if you're on Facebook or something like that. I'm not, but there's algorithms in the background that's looking at your history, what you're looking at, and it's presenting you with things. I think applying this to engineering and what we do here is super interesting.

So you know figuring out how we can use this
technology to to improve kind of what we're doing as a firm to improve, again our efficiency and just working smarter. I'm really interested in that. What facet of that technology are you are you most looking forward to? Is there any kind of big broad brush stroke examples that you could give. So one thing that I've kind of been interested in is kind of this "computer vision". So being able to either in augmented reality or using drones to look at something and then have have the AI figure out what you're looking, at classify it in some way, and then kind of give you a result. So you know maybe it's change detection or you know you use the drone and you're flying the bridge and then it can detect defects automatically.

So that type of kind of instant
feedback is really really interesting and I think it's something that in the future we're gonna be doing more of. I know that in communications we use a an AI service for our transcriptions, of this podcast in fact. You know when we're done the episode we want to have a transcript of the entire thing and so our first pass of that transcription is through an AI system. And it's it's good.

We have to clean it up obviously but that's...
It saves so much time from having to go through and manually do it that it is a real big efficiency. And so I look forward to having kind of more of those things come along and I'm really glad that we have someone who's specifically focused on keeping us on top of that. So I don't know Tom what what else what else do you want to talk about. I mean what there's there's so many things that you do I feel like we could sit here all day.

What's something we haven't covered?
We've covered drones. Again that's a big one. I think it's just going to increase. AR's definitely to increase. I don't know. What's something you're excited.. Is there something else you're excited about? We talked about curious about but is there, is there a particular part of your job that you get really... really jazzed for? All of it. All of it. I know you said don't don't say "all of it" or "everything." No, you know I love technology so finding ways for for our staff and for people here to be able to use technology better, more efficiently to get their jobs done better, to kind of remove roadblocks to getting their work done is something I'm really interested in.

So I like having those conversations with people
and then just have them kind of, you know it doesn't always have to be about technology but they're not thinking about a technology solution that I might be thinking about. So like hearing those things and then trying to figure out how we work that into a technological solution. Right and the thing that I think is kind of cool about your job is that not every idea gets implemented but that's the good thing about it is that there's a process for evaluating these ideas and seeing how we can apply them. And, hey maybe this thing over here didn't work out now but maybe there's an application for it at some other point.

And so it's not just a 'yeah let's
do that!' 'Yeah let's try this new technology, that new technology!' There's a very careful, thoughtful approach to these things. It is and and it's not just me sitting here by myself in a room. In a vacuum. You know typing away or thinking away all day it's it's getting those people to the table that that have a stake in kind of what we're doing. So I have lots of examples that you've been involved in in the asset management think we're looking at, digital asset management. So really it's bringing those people together to look at something, you know figure out how it works for us and then kind of moving forward with that. So it's a lot of fun.

I'm looking forward to doing more of it.
You have a cool job. I do have a cool job. All right so we've arrived at the point now where Tom gets to give us his pick of the week. This is where Tom recommends something to us that he thinks we are going to enjoy. And I don't know what it... Actually I do know what this one is he showed me what this one is early. So I'm actually excited about this. I think this is cool. Tom take it away. Pick of the week. So one of the things that I really like to do is is read. I read a lot of leadership books and just just other maybe like self-improvement type books. But a lot of them are focused on leadership.

And so one of the ones I've read recently it's
been out for a few years. The author is Jocko Willink. He was a Navy SEAL and his his book is called Extreme Ownership. So you know it's a it's a really great leadership book. He takes his lessons learned leading SEAL teams and applies that, well he tell stories, and then he applies that to business and how we might apply those kind of in a business setting because you know he's talking about being in Iraq and you know real life dangerous situations but you can apply those in the real world.

And I've actually had to do it here at
RK&K, you know using those leadership principles, to kind of take ownership of something kind of leading my team, so again it's a it's a great great book and I recommend it to everyone. Extreme Ownership? Extreme Ownership. Alright, we'll put the info to that in the show notes. Thanks Tom that's good. Books are always a good thing. Well thank you Tom for coming into the studio where we appreciate you being here and sharing your thoughts. I think we'll probably have to have you back some other time to talk about the next cool thing that you're working on because it's always something.

It's always something.
It's always something cool. All right well thank you all for joining us for this episode of Inside Engineering. We'll see you next week.

Show notes

Measuring Success

Tom says that for technology advances, successes are going to “efficiency savings, time savings, letting our staff work on the things that they’re really good at instead of wasting time on things that they don’t need to be doing.

Curious About

Tom is especially interested in computer vision and how that’s going to redefine how work in his field is done.

Pick of the week

Tom’s pick is the book ‘Extreme Ownership‘, by former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink. Tom’s found the principles very useful and has applied then in his role as a leader.

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