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Smart infrastructure depends on GIS

April 14, 2021  - By 0 Comments

Get ready! Here comes the boom.

The physical and digital world are integrating. We are nearing the edge of the analog universe. Physical immersion is giving way to virtual immersion. It is the virtualization of products and services in the evolution of technology. Michael Saylor calls it the sixth wave of software engineering. We are moving away from externally experiencing data and are moving towards actively interfacing with data directly in virtual space.


“You can Zoom anywhere at the speed of light and bend time and space.” — Michael Saylor


The world of tomorrow is already here. We are waking up to it. The blips of information at the fringes are coming nearer. The horizons of time are as far as one can see into the future and the past. How far can you see? From wherever you are there are others who can see a little further. Look forward. Look back. Others are ahead and behind. They exist where time is most comfortable for them. Some take up positions living in the past. Some stake their place as far into the future as they are able. Look towards those early adopters. Ask them what they think. They see more clearly the blips of information out on the horizon.

What are those blips? How will they impact the geospatial community? How can you position yourself to take advantage of the coming trends?

America needs to go back to work and America’s infrastructure is old and in disrepair. In 2019, Congress introduced H.R.4687, the SMART Infrastructure Act, a $2 trillion bill but it never made it out of the House. However, that bill is being reintroduced. This time it will become a bill putting America back to work and its price tag will likely eclipse the previous bill. It will address infrastructure — all types of infrastructure: physical, data, cybersecurity, health, financial, transportation, energy, and communications. It will be a primary theme for the next two decades. Get ready! Change can happen fast and it’s about to accelerate.


“The future happens slowly and then all at once.” — Kevin Kelly


Rebuilding this infrastructure will require geospatial technologies. STEM has been the siren call for the past 30 years and for good reason. Those who heeded the call and invested their education into coding, engineering, data science, geospatial technologies, mathematics, artificial intelligence, and other STEM related fields are going to lead the coming workforce. Now is the time to get certified and establish your credentials.

Take the case of architectural design and construction. It used to be blueprints drawn on light tables. That is how I learned to do it back in the 1970s. Then it all moved to computer aided design (CAD) drawings. Now, urban planners and architects create immersive 3D virtual reality (VR) visualizations. That is becoming standard practice.

Image: teekid/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Image: teekid/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Project managers used to spend their day making their rounds walking the site ensuring the project was being built to specifications. However, that is changing. Soon, each worker’s safety glasses will have built-in augmented reality (AR). They will build their portion of a project exactly to plan. Project managers will connect with workers in the field and see the project they are working on progress in real-time while in their office on 3D models.

When the project manager does walk the site he or she will be wearing augmented reality (AR) head-up displays and able to compare the physical construction to the digital model in real-time. Backhoe and excavator operators will grade to exact precision. Robots will be common at construction sites assisting operations and enhancing current capabilities. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) will fly regular patterns over construction sites. Heavy-lift UAVs will supplement cranes for some operations. Subsurface structures, whether buried beneath the ground or behind a wall will be digitized with precise location data making future replacements and repairs swift and easy. The uses of geospatially dependent technologies will continue to grow. The construction worker of tomorrow will be very different than the one of today.

Photo: Trimble

Photo: Trimble

The new infrastructure will be built with smart technologies and incorporate renewables and “green energy” initiatives with a responsible approach to sustainability; for example, roadways will have embedded peizo-electric crystals in the asphalt to generate electricity from passing vehicles. The electricity will charge batteries that will power smart sensors embedded in the street and provide power to street lights with sensors and 5G networks along the roadways. Excess power will transfer to other microgrids for use elsewhere. Energy will also come from capturing wind on top and along the sides of buildings, along roadways, and at tunnel exits and entrances. Thermocouples will capture heat and generate electricity.

Solar power will be generated from panels, windows, films, and even paint surfaces. All of these sources together will feed into microgrids. Some of this renewable energy will convert water to hydrogen for fuel cells, and some will power carbon dioxide (CO2) converters to extract CO2 from the atmosphere and create synthetic fuels. In 2010, Sunexus submitted a geospatial study of the solar reforming process to the Office of Scientific & Technical Information (OSTI). The study showed that nearly 58% of industrial CO2 waste from power plants, cement plants, ethanol production, and natural gas processing could be converted to synthetic diesel fuel.

Image: U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy

Image: U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy

Besides energy, other smart materials will be used such as small sensors that are geospatially sensitive nanodevices embedded in roads, bridges, tunnels, buildings and other structures. They are wirelessly connected to one another creating a 3D mesh network. These nanodevices continuously report their structural health. This 3D mesh network can detect vibrations passing through it that cause distortions in the mesh framework.

Geospatial artificial intelligence (GeoAI) will profile devices based on their normal statistical ranges. If any data such as location, temperature, humidity, pressure, acoustics or health status exceed the device’s standard deviation the GeoAI will analyze surrounding nodes in the mesh network to depict patterns. Suspect events will immediately come to the attention of emergency services. These microdevices can provide early detection of cracks in a structure or deterioration of a surface protection layer.

The use of these devices extends beyond structural monitoring. More broadly, they have societal applications too, such as for security purposes. When fitted with acoustic sensors they can detect sounds, and by geospatially analyzing the data from many thousands of devices the epic center of a noise event can immediately be located. Take for example a gun shot, fireworks, an explosion, or a vehicle accident. The increased acoustic signal would trigger the GeoAI monitoring the devices to plot a spatial analysis of the acoustic report. The map would alert area would flash red on the monitor at the control center and nearby cameras would zoom in on the location providing images and live video feeds all within moments of the triggering event. The analysts at the control center could immediately assess the situation and dispatch the proper response units.

Embedded devices also serve as seismic sensors blanketing broad areas and are able to record surface vibrations moving through the mesh network. An earthquake would appear as a moving wave field along the network.

Additionally, data from the mesh network can integrate with other devices. It can provide smartphones with precise location data. Imagine no longer standing on a street corner turning in circles trying to figure out which way to go. When connected with the mesh network and looking through AR glasses or the smartphone view screen the path will be illuminated. Autonomous vehicles will connect with the mesh network and have absolute positional accuracy and have awareness of other vehicles, bikes, and pedestrians ensuring a more safe and efficient experience for everyone.

The mesh network can be used as a base layer for georeferencing the world. Notifications, warnings and requests for information can be sent to smartphones within an exact georeferenced location. Imagine being in your third-floor apartment sitting in your chair, listening to music on your headphones and reading an ebook. You are oblivious to the noise outside. An audible alert is sent to your phone and calls your attention. You look at your phone and a message is requesting information related to a possible gunshot at DD°MM’SS.sss N, DD°MM’SS.sss W. You click on the notification and a map opens up. You see it is right outside your window. You go to the window, look outside and see two people duck into a car. You watch as red tail lights drive away. You look back at the location on the street where the vehicle had been and a person is slumped over leaning against a stairwell.

On your phone you press the red alert button on the map application triggering a distress signal and confirming the incident may have been a gunshot and someone has possibly been injured. Emergency services immediately dispatch. Others nearby received the same alert message because it was automatically generated and sent out to all phone numbers within the area defined by the geospatial acoustic solution. Surveillance cameras on the corner of buildings were also triggered by the alert and automatically focused on the origin of the noise. Images of the assailants were captured along with the license plate of the vehicle. As the vehicle drove away a network of surveillance cameras continued following it turn by turn until it was finally intercepted and the occupants apprehended.

This world is nearer than it seems. The technologies are already here. Once the infrastructure bill is passed construction projects will begin and our physical world will begin to integrate with the digital world. The engineers design it. The construction workers and robots will build it. And it will be geospatial technologies holding it all together.


William Tewelow works for the Federal Aviation Administration. He is a graduate of the FAA management fellowship program. He served on special assignment to the U.S. Department of Transportation leading a national strategic geospatial initiative for the White House Open Data Partnership. He is a Geographic Information Systems Professional (GISP) and a speaker for the Maryland STEMnet Scholar program. He was among the first in the nation to earn a Geospatial Specialist Certification from the U.S. Department of Labor while working at NASA Stennis Space Center. He has degrees in Geographic Information Technology, Intelligence Studies, and is completing a masters degree in Organizational Management. William is a 23 year veteran for the U.S. Navy serving as a Geospatial Specialist, Imagery Intelligence Specialist, a Naval Aviator, a Meteorologist, and a Tactical Oceanographer. He is married, enjoys writing and traveling. His favorite quote is, “A man’s mind changed by a new idea can never go back to its original dimension.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes

William Tewelow, GISP

About the Author:

William Tewelow is a manager for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). He is a graduate of the FAA management fellowship program and a mentor with the FAA's National Mentor Program. While on special assignment to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Tewelow led the project to crowdsource the National Address Database for the White House Open Data Partnership. He is a geographic information systems professional (GISP) and a Maryland Scholar STEMnet speaker. He has a degree in geographic information technology and intelligence studies from American Military University and is currently enrolled earning a degree in Organizational Leadership. Tewelow retired from the U.S. Navy after serving 23 years as a geospatial and imagery intelligence specialist, a naval aviator, a meteorologist and a tactical oceanographer. He was among the first in the nation to earn a Geospatial Specialist Certification from the U.S. Department of Labor while working at NASA Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

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