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Aye, Robots!

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Upgrading total stations proves a transformative force for Pensacola, Florida engineering firm

With the introduction of the total station more than a half-century ago, the surveyor’s dream of capturing distance and angle measurements using a single instrument was realized. Gone (for the most part) was the need for stringline, tape measure, and the lengthy processes they demanded. The survey world would have to wait another two decades before that technology was further improved upon via the robotic total station, which, as the name implies, could remotely record measurements from a distance. It also improved survey efficiencies, making the long-anticipated dream of a one-person crew a reality. For Baskerville-Donovan, Inc., the impact of robotics on their operation has brought all that and more. Since embracing robotic total station technology, the Pensacola, Florida-based multi-disciplined engineering firm has seen a huge uptick in speed and efficiency throughout the broad range of projects they tackle. Technology: just when you think it can’t get any better  . . . it does.

Almost a Century

Founded 95 years ago, Baskerville-Donovan, Inc. (BDI) is one of the larger, more in-demand engineering firms serving the Florida panhandle and southeastern Alabama. While the company specializes in local government consulting — with a particular expertise in wastewater treatment plant projects — it heads up engineering for everything from construction of breakwater structures and iconic fishing piers to sitework design for a university football field. According to Robert Scott Mills, BDI’s vice president and surveying market director, its survey crews play a critical role in virtually every project the company undertakes.

“Early on in the company’s existence, we would generally subcontract out our survey work,” he said. “However, management quickly realized what a key role it played in all our projects and brought that function in-house. Between our Pensacola headquarters and offices in Panama City, Tallahassee, and Mobile, we do about $12 million in business each year — a lot of which is generated by survey demands. So our crews need to be productive and efficient — exactly what the robotics provide.”

While BDI had long embraced total stations for the benefits they provide, their need to further improve the operation was evident by 2015 when, working with Altoona, Florida-based Lengemann Corp., their regional Topcon dealer, they purchased their first two GT-603 robotic solutions. Based on that performance and the support from Lengemann, they haven’t looked back since.

“Roger Wheeler, our Lengemann rep is always there when we need him,” said Jeff Gallagher, a BDI survey party chief. “If we can’t figure something out, or have a problem, he’s always available for a call. If he can’t handle it, he’ll point us towards someone who can. That was important when we transitioned to robotics and it continues to be today.”

Matter of Preference

When pressed for the overriding benefit robotic technology brings to their worksite, the three BDI colleagues interviewed for this story had different but equally compelling opinions. For Mills, it has always been about efficiency — the opportunity to maximize the potential of every person on the survey crew. For Taylor Brown, also one of BDI’s survey party chiefs, it is the ability to get jobs like topo surveys, a big part of BDI’s business, done quicker and with fewer headaches. For Gallagher, it is all of that, coupled with an easy-to-use interface.

“I really like the MAGNET Field software that is the brains behind the robotic solution,” he said. “When I first started learning it, finding my way through it was a snap — it is very intuitive, which is great for getting your feet wet. We can easily navigate to what we need — without having to dig deep into submenus. There was a lot of thought put into the software and we appreciate it almost every day.”

Individual reasons aside, BDI’s robotic totals stations are helping reshape the way the company does business. The instruments, which are markedly lighter than previous models, feature UltraSonic direct-drive motors that provide extremely smooth, fast and accurate tracking. Add in the ability to be easily upgraded to a hybrid positioning system and BDI’s embrace of the technology is easily understood.

“I really like the MAGNET Field software that is the brains behind the robotic solution.”

Jeff Gallagher, BDI survey party chief

Railing Against the Bay

While most of BDI’s work is done discretely, they are currently playing a role in one of the highest profile jobs in the area: completion of a new three-mile bridge over Pensacola Bay, linking the City of Pensacola with the Gulf Breeze peninsula. Armed with his robotic solution, Jeff Gallagher can regularly be found on that new span, establishing points for installation of a railing system.

“The walkway on that new bridge features a prefab cable railing system to ensure pedestrian safety,” he said. “We are providing six miles of precise measurements (three miles in each direction) in order for those cables to be tightened to exacting specifications. Too long and it can sag — too short and connection is impossible.”

He added that there were some challenges that presented themselves almost on a daily basis, particularly when it came to obtaining as-built locations. These included everyday traffic concerns, the ongoing bridge construction itself, job site obstructions, and more.

“We got very good at dealing with these issues,” he said. “Several features of the robotic solution — the reflector-less prism and offset function, for example — really helped us out in that regard. The robot lets us move right along, accurately nailing hundreds of points each time we go onto the bridge. The combination of speed, accuracy and efficiency has been ideal, both for us and our customer.”

By the Sea, By the Sea . . .

While BDI places a great deal of faith in their robotic total stations, they are quick to use a GNSS-based solution when needed. Both Gallagher and Brown can cite countless examples of where each has been used — and the impact they’ve had. Because of their location in Pensacola, that often includes a range of marine projects.

“All throughout this area, we’ve been called upon to do work — as-builts, hydrographic surveys, beach erosion work, etc. — for both private and municipal customers,” said Gallagher. “There are waterways that need periodic dredging to ensure safe passage of the vessels using them, and for that we use both technologies. We recently we did a project in an upscale area called Lafitte Cove, which serves as the waterside access for some very impressive homes as well as a popular seafood restaurant.”

For that survey, Gallagher said they had to locate everything at the entrance to the cove — all the channel markers, all the sea walls, all the docks, etc. — and then do hydrographic scans to verify the depth of the sea floor. After setting control in an area in which as much of the cove as possible was visible, they did the bulk of the work robotically.

“Then, after locating all that we could, we turned to our Topcon HiPer VR GNSS solution for the areas we couldn’t see — rip-rap in the water, for example. We are lucky to have the capability to switch back and forth.”

“All throughout this area, we’ve been called upon to do work — as-builts, hydrographic surveys, beach erosion work, etc. — for both private and municipal customers.”

Jeff Gallagher, BDI survey party chief

A Glaring Example

Because Florida weather is overwhelmingly sunny, many performing survey work find themselves dealing with glare issues while reading the screens of peripheral equipment. For BDI’s Taylor Brown, that issue has been solved nicely by their Topcon FC-6000 field computers.

“As powerful and invaluable as our data collectors are in our work, I think one of the best features of the FC-6000 is that I can read the screen while wearing sunglasses,” she says. “Because we work outside all day, we always wear eye protection to avoid the risk of cataracts from UV rays. However, taking our sunglasses off every time we need to look at the data collector can be a pain. The Topcon 6000 allows us to easily view the screen with shades on. That might sound trivial to some, but to us, it’s an outstanding feature.”

As mentioned, beach erosion projects have become a decent part of BDI’s ongoing business. Though it’s not touted in any of the tourist brochures, more than half of Florida’s 825 miles of coastline is either critically eroded or worn down. When that occurs in the Pensacola area, which is quite common, BDI’s team will survey it in order for engineers to create a design aimed at correcting the problem.

“After truckloads of sand are dumped in the eroded area and pushed into place, we come back out with the robot and perform an as-built survey,” said Brown. “We set up the instrument, take the prism out to the edge of the newly corrected area, determine toe-to-slope and verify that it’s been constructed according to design. Our part couldn’t be faster or easier, thanks to the robotic solution.”

A Smaller Party

As technology continues to develop at its current breakneck pace, BDI’s Scott Mills said it’s easy to forget how labor-intensive some of the projects they conduct on a regular basis used to be.

“Pre-robotics, survey parties might easily have been four or five people, with that number rising to as many as 10, depending on the complexity of the job,” he said. “Now, our two-person crews are able to do even complex projects much quicker — often in half the time we bid. At their most basic, robotics have taken one person from being behind the equipment and freed them up to do other work such as cutting line or prepping for stake work — that can make a huge difference on site.”

When discussing the impact the Topcon robotic solutions have had on their operation, Mills hesitates to use the phrase “game changer” for fear it gets passed off as hyperbole. In this case, however, he said it’s entirely accurate.

“Robotics have dramatically changed the way we can now do so much of our work,” he said. “We see examples of it — and benefit greatly from it — every day. So yeah, it’s a game changer.”