GWPrime


A Crisis is What You Need to Make a Change

The COVID-19 pandemic has stalled the design, development, and construction of airports worldwide. Airports have had to push back on their major construction projects until the impact of the outbreak on air travel is clear. Despite the slowdown, expansion continues to happen at the Boston Logan Airport using digital tools and technologies embedded with data sharing principles to drive the construction processes efficiently. Dr Luciana Burdi, Deputy Director, Capital Programs and Environmental Affairs, Massachusetts Port Authority, highlights the broader impact of the pandemic on MassPort, the design and construction industry, and the role of geospatial and BIM technologies in accelerating the digital transformation of the construction industry.

By GW Prime

How has COVID-19 affected air travel?

Boston Logan Airport is one of the busiest commercial airports in the U.S. in terms of the number of operations, and also has one of the largest passenger gateways to the world. However, since the pandemic broke out, the number of operational flights reduced from 1200 to 200 in a day. In 2018, we had 42.5 million passengers, and for the next fiscal year, we are estimating less than 13 million, which is a considerable decrease. We also believe that in a year and a half or so, we are going to see a double-digit increase. I hope that if we find a vaccine, the confidence of the people in air travel will resume, and while we won’t be back to 42.5 million passengers immediately, we will get there in two-three years. 

How do you view the impact of the pandemic on the airport expansion projects?

For Logan International Airport, we had a $3 billion capital program planned for the next five years. However, owing to the pandemic, we have had to cut a third of the program – basically cut out significant projects which involve new construction. We have had to reduce our plans of building additional seven gates on Terminal E; and eliminate a garage that we had planned in front of the international terminal, among other things. So, there has been a substantial cutback in the expansion plans. But we have also used this time to accelerate the construction of our ongoing projects, especially road construction projects. We repaved our major runaways in April, which we had scheduled for August. We are trying to adapt to the change, and take advantage of the lesser number of passengers and complete as many ongoing construction, operations and maintenance projects as possible. Also, we have been able to use digital technologies in our processes, and it has proven to be cost-effective and time efficient.

Have you used geospatial technologies at MassPort to ensure smooth completion of projects in these tough times?

The beauty of geospatial technologies is that they are flexible in the way they can be used — in any way we can imagine. During the pandemic, we had to make sure our job sites remained open, and we also needed to make sure that all workers and employees felt safe, comfortable and healthy. For this purpose, using similar intelligence of the John Hopkins data platform, and Esri’s GIS software, we developed an internal application, namely, the MassPort Central Construction Screening COVID app. The application allows us to easily track any worker using both spatial and non-spatial data. We are taking temperatures, asking questions, and feeding it all into the GIS system to help us with contact tracing. Without GIS this would not be possible. 

"The beauty of geospatial technologies is that they are flexible in the way they can be used — in any way we can imagine. During the pandemic, we had to make sure our job sites remained open, and we also needed to ensure that all workers and employees felt safe. So, we developed an internal application, namely, the MassPort Central Construction Screening COVID app, which allows us to easily track any worker using both spatial and non-spatial data. We are taking temperatures, asking questions, and feeding it all into the GIS system to help us with contact tracing."

So, is this the first time that you have used geospatial technologies?

We have been using GIS since 2015, when we developed the Resiliency application for MassPort using Esri software. Boston Logan Airport is situated by the Harbor, and so it is susceptible to flooding. The Resiliency application helps us conduct resiliency studies of all our facilities and identify and evaluate the critical assets prone to flooding. Before the app was developed, we had field workers with paper drawings and documents to assess the situation. Now, all our field workers are equipped with iPads, so they are able to share real-time information on the critical assets, and the status of the barriers deployed to track the incidence. The application was one of our many applications which links the technology and the tool to the efficiency of construction processes. 

Apart from GIS, which other construction technologies do you think are essential?

We are currently using Esri’s GIS software and Autodesk’s Revit in the design and construction process. However, it is the integration of geospatial and BIM which is very important. We are looking forward to updating our BIM guidelines to include GIS and BIM. Since we use laser scanner tools in our construction processes, we need to identify how to integrate the collected data through workflows, design and construction phase, take it into CAD drawing or a Civil 3D drawing and eventually put this data into a usable interface. Also, Digital Twins are important. For Logan, there cannot be one Digital Twin which can have all the information that you need and therefore, there is a need for multiple Digital Twins for different purposes. At MassPort, we are currently in the R&D phase of Digital Twins and are working with various vendors to understand how Digital Twins work. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are the other two technologies which shall cause significant disruption – bringing in automation to the construction workflows. 

The integration of geospatial and BIM is very important. We are looking forward to updating our BIM guidelines to include GIS and BIM. Since we use laser scanner tools in our construction processes, we need to identify how to integrate the collected data through workflows, design and construction phase, take it into CAD drawing or a Civil 3D drawing and eventually put this data into a usable interface

Has COVID-19 changed the way the AEC industry responds to technology?

Sometimes a crisis is what you need to make a change. The AEC industry has not been innovative because the processes are not as agile as they should and could be. All other industries are embracing technology, which means they are changing the way they do business. In this aspect, the construction industry is a little slow, because it’s not only about project owners, but about the entire ecosystem embracing technology. The pandemic has done just that. It has forced the industry to embrace technology and has accelerated the digitalization process. 

What is the best way forward for the construction industry?

We need to educate stakeholders on the benefits of using technology in construction workflow processes. I tell project owners that they do not need to be experts in technology, but they need to understand how technologies help their purpose. The industry also needs to start looking at data better, which means just not collecting data but analyzing it, using it and sharing it. We need to get into the mindset of data sharing – and that’s the future.