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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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?
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,
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
And that plant health in particular, we've had
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
But with the right level of depth for that
seagrass but this would be a good application.
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?
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.