April 2024 Vol. 79 No. 4


Harnessing advanced technologies for underground engineering success

By Houman Payami, PMP, CCM Fluor 

Underground construction endeavors are intricate, demanding meticulous planning, execution and risk management. With billions of dollars invested and millions impacted annually, the stakes are monumental. Whether a project is solely underground or incorporates underground elements, engineering mis-steps bear substantial ramifications – delays, budget overruns, safety incidents and environmental impacts. Thus, success hinges on a meticulously executed design and engineering phase.

Amidst the dynamic landscape of modern engineering and construction, technological leaps and inventive methodologies orchestrate transformation. Project leaders must transcend the role of passive observers and instead, become the architects of this transformation. The imperative is clear: actively harness these innovations to enhance engineering accuracy and quality, which leads to minimizing rework at construction sites.  

The question echoes through construction sites and boardrooms alike: how can we utilize advanced technologies to set the stage for a future where underground projects are executed with unparalleled foresight and ingenuity? 

Embracing advanced 3D modeling

Innovative 3D modeling technologies are ushering in a new era for underground design. While basic 3D modeling has been used for years, the latest tools have evolved far beyond, giving engineers a portal into remarkably realistic and dynamic digital environments. Powerful computing, state-of-the-art visualization and seamless integration of data now enable interactive, intricately detailed settings unlike anything before.  

By synthesizing precise geotechnical data and high-resolution scan surveys, and building information modeling, engineers can now construct comprehensive digital replicas mapping the entire subterranean landscape. Every component, from structural supports to pipes and wires, access points and more, is visualized as part of an interwoven system.  

This not only allows real-time clash detection to identify and resolve issues early, but fosters vital collaboration between civil, structural, mechanical and electrical teams in a shared virtual space accessible from anywhere. Through iterative design cycles, the engineering team enhances constructability, coordination, safety and the long-term operation of a built asset. 

Looking further ahead, immersive and interactive 3D design environments have revolutionary potential. Generative design powered by AI could autonomously create and optimize underground configurations for myriad objectives. Intelligent agents and physics simulations running at massive computational scales could stress-test designs under extreme conditions. Interactive mixed reality visualization would allow engineers to intuitively understand spatial implications by immersing themselves at real-world scale.  

And autonomous robotics construction technologies may enable digital models to be built directly in the physical world with minimal human involvement. Technological advancements will soon allow the seamless convergence of human ingenuity and machine intelligence to collaboratively design and construct optimized underground environments. 

AI-enabled subsurface mapping 

Intricate underground mapping demands thorough data collection from diverse sources. Relying solely on a single method, risks overlooking crucial details, as each instrument has its strengths and limitations. Employing complementary tools overcomes these limitations and paints a more complete picture.  

For example, combining non-destructive technologies that utilize electromagnetic, magnetic, electrical and ground penetrating radar sensors provides a more complete picture of subsurface structures. Also, invasive methods like potholing provide direct observation with minimal disruption. The combination of non-destructive and invasive approaches maximizes data collection and understanding of the underground environment. This multi-physics approach detects different materials and properties that any single method would likely overlook.  

By amalgamating diverse sensor data and targeted testing, designers can thoroughly map intricacies. Machine learning methods can integrate this varied subsurface information and existing as-built drawings into remarkably detailed 3D networks, precisely locating underground assets.  

The real magic lies in harnessing the power of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to analyze and interpret this multi-sensorial data. AI algorithms, trained on vast datasets of existing maps, geological data and sensor readings, can identify patterns and relationships invisible to human eyes. They can distinguish subtle variations in material properties and predict the presence of hidden objects.  

This advanced analysis converts the collected data from a collection of points into a comprehensive understanding of the subsurface landscape. With AI serving as the analytical engine, subsurface mapping transforms into a rich and dynamic understanding of the underground realm. 

Technology-driven project execution

Strategic project execution and collaboration are pivotal for underground construction to triumph. Cloud-based platforms enable real-time centralized planning, budgeting and scheduling, while also automating workflows. Visually mapping sequences in 4D BIM proactively mitigates delays and clashes. Additionally, predictive analytics harnessing project data and real-time sensors generate actionable insights to optimize planning intricacies.  

Automated monitoring via technologies like Lidar and drones keeps work on track, and regular virtual meetings powered by Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) technologies align teams across disciplines, while minimizing travel. Immersive model walkthroughs further augment communication and understanding.  

Cloud repositories centralize up-to-date models, documents and project information for universal access, and mobile platforms provide real-time updates on required actions. Continuous cross-platform synchronization creates an adaptive execution plan to nimbly navigate changes and drive efficiency. 

This connected construction ecosystem lays the foundation for a new era of transparency, coordination and predictive power in underground projects. With streamlined information sharing and proactive planning, projects can effectively mitigate complexity and propel forward in new ways.  

As innovations in collaboration, automation and data analysis continue, the potential grows for holistic underground project execution in an integrated workflow. By embracing leading-edge exponential technologies, the industry is poised to achieve unprecedented efficiency, predictability and success. 

Proactive risk management

Underground projects inherently carry risks. However, a proactive approach to risk management goes a long way in mitigating them. In any underground project, project teams should at least conduct thorough geotechnical investigations and underground mapping to identify potential hazards. Additionally, comprehensive contingency plans for potential cost and schedule overruns should be developed.  

But going beyond such basics is the integration of predictive analytics to forecast and proactively mitigate risks. Through the analysis of historical data, project-specific parameters, and environmental factors, predictive analytics can identify potential challenges well in advance. 

Machine learning algorithms play a pivotal role in synthesizing large datasets to quantify project risks and simulate various scenarios. This capability empowers project managers to formulate preventive strategies, such as adjusting designs, modifying construction sequences, or reinforcing infrastructure to mitigate potential risks accordingly. 

In the realm of underground projects, where complexity meets demand, our path forward is illuminated by innovation and ingenuity. To navigate this challenging terrain, we must adopt the latest technologies that enhance predictability, safety and cost-effectiveness. 

Progressive solutions from advanced modeling and AI-driven mapping to immersive collaboration platforms and predictive analytics have the potential to transform the underground construction industry into a new era of optimized project delivery. These innovations are not just about what happens beneath the surface – they are the key to laying the groundwork for the seamless integration of larger-scale initiatives. The precision achieved in the subterranean realm ripples upward, ensuring that every facet of the broader projects is executed with brilliance and efficiency. 

We have only begun to scratch the surface of what is possible for the infrastructure of tomorrow, when the full potential of the latest tools and insights are realized. The future of the underground built environment is bright, and it is ours to create. 

About the author: Houman Payami, PMP, CCM is the FLUOR SoCal Office Quality Manager and can be contacted at houman.payami@fluor.com, (949) 349-2521. 

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