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Conference review: Protecting our assets

GE’s annual slopes conference tackled the core issues currently facing the industry, with a focus on the key criteria required to improve slope stability and resilience of geotechnical assets.

Network Rail

Source: Network Rail

The ability to predict failure would enable preventative maintenance to be carried out and add resilience

Delegates from across the country gathered at London’s Bloomsbury Hotel in November to hear the panel of geotechnical engineers, asset owners, stakeholders and academics discuss slope engineering, asset failure prevention and effective management strategies.

Smart workshop

The first day of the conference offered a series of workshops, question and answer sessions, and case studies.

Following the opening welcome from Tom Dijkstra, an engineering geologist/geomorphologist for the British Geological Survey, Stephanie Glendinning, professor of civil engineering at Newcastle University, took the stage to discuss iSMART: Infrastructure slopes – Sustainable Management and Resilience Assessment.

The iSMART project, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), aims to better understand the interaction between earthworks, vegetation and climate to improve infrastructure slope management and, as a result, create a safer and more sustainable transport system.

Glendinning analysed the pressures and risks facing the UK’s infrastructure and urged the industry to actively engage with the iSMART project. 

“Results delivered by the structure-from-motion
technique were adequate compared with
traditional topographical surveys”
Raul Fuentes, Leeds University

Climatic challenges

Taking a closer look at the impact extreme weather is having on geotechnical assets, Neil Dixon, a professor of geotechnical engineering at Loughborough University, discussed the importance of better weather modelling. Dixon discussed the effect that wet and dry weather had on slope stability and the need for future asset failures to be predicted and resolved effectively before problems arise.

The effect of extreme weather on slopes and geotechnical assets continued to influence many of the presentations and debates on the second day of the conference. The discussion, chaired by chartered geologist and technology leader at CH2M Hill, Roger Moore, was particularly significant in light of last winter, which was the wettest on record in some parts of the UK. The torrential rain experienced in many regions caused a number of major asset failures on essential infrastructure.

Conference focus

Delivering the opening address on the second day, Tony Wilcock, professional head (geotechnical) at Network Rail, discussed the Geotechnical Asset Owners Forum (GAOF) and its vision for the future development of infrastructure management. The GAOF allows individuals involved with the management of geotechnical and related assets to share and exchange ideas, information, research themes and other issues to develop guidance and benefit the asset-owning community.

Wilcock urged the geotechnical community to innovate to improve efficiencies, therefore supporting the delivery of a greater volume of physical resilience works over the next 30-50 years to provide affordable, weather-ready, robust infrastructure to support the needs of future generations.

Asset resilience

Janvi Shah, a geotechnical engineer in Amey’s Consulting, Rail and Strategic Highways team and winner of GE’s Young Geotechnical Engineer of the Year 2014 award, discussed infrastructure asset management and looked at why a more resilient longterm strategy is required.

Shah explored some of the key challenges facing the infrastructure industry. She identified rapidly changing conditions, including economical, technological and environmental issues, which were in turn rapidly changing the role of geotechnics in asset management.

“We need to look at how our assets and asset management methods can be adapted to meet these changing conditions,” she said.

Shah has authored this month’s Talking Point, which expands on the subject.

Risk assessment

During the conference, much of the discussion focused on the importance of assessing assets and identifying problems before they occur. This was an issue high on the agenda for Transport Scotland, said Morag Mackay, incident policy manager. She is currently looking into forecasting landslides in Scotland to get a better understanding of where events might occur. Accurate forecasting will allow Transport Scotland to respond to risks more efficiently and proactively, she explained, although she acknowledged that a lack of funding was a key challenge facing this more proactive, less reactive approach.

Neal Rushton, group manager, structures and geotechnics at Telford and Wrekin Council, agreed that funding was a major obstacle: “It is totally unrealistic for local authorities to be more proactive and manage these risks if there is no support from government,” he said, adding that there was a need for a more holistic approach, with collaboration between different authorities as well as regulators.

Data modelling

The debate also looked at the use of new techniques, in particular modelling, to improve understanding and management of assets. The panel discussed the stumbling blocks the industry must overcome if it is to fully embrace Building Information Modelling (BIM).

One of the key issues raised was the lack of consistent data. However, Christina Jackson, technical director – geotechnical, Amey, said: “Even if the model is not perfect and the data is not entirely correct, we can use this to start predicting what budgets we will need, so that we can move towards a more predictive approach to asset management.”

Looking at the role of new technology in geotechnical asset management, Raul Fuentes, a lecturer at Leeds University’s School of Civil Engineering, piqued the audience’s interest with his presentation on structure-from-motion imaging.

The process is essentially a reconstruction of a 3D object’s geometry using 2D images. Using multiple photographs of the object (taken from different angles), features or points, such as corners and edges, can be identified between the images. These matching points are then used to reconstruct the position and orientation of each of the cameras, from which a 3D model can be built.

Fuentes said: “The results delivered by the structure-frommotion technique were adequate in comparison with traditional topographical surveys using total stations and laser scanning.” But he said the process was safer, quicker, cheaper and required very little training.

He also outlined current ongoing research at the University of Leeds, exploring the potential for added value of the technique, including automatic creation of 3D BIMready models, automatic vegetation removal, object identification and cataloguing, measurement of moisture or deformation and analysis of rock faces.

Geotechnical fraternity

Closing the conference, Moore urged the geotechnical engineering community to push for a more proactive approach to asset management to identify problems before they occur.

“Failures will happen but what we are aiming for is improved understanding… so we can intervene where risk is detected, allowing a more proactive approach,” he said. “My idea of working smarter is going in and fixing the problem before it occurs.”

However, he acknowledged that key to a more proactive approach was getting the decision makers onside.

“As a community, we need to better communicate with the decision makers and stakeholders who often do not have a geotechnical engineering background,” he said. This entailed providing clear, understandable explanations and a solid business case that used the “language they want to hear”.


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