Future Ready

Towards digital airport construction

Airports have already started their journey towards digital transformation. Digital means of constructing airport infrastructure are being increasingly explored. At a recent webinar organised by India Infrastructure on “Construction of Airports: Role of Data and Digital Technologies”, industry experts discussed emerging technology trends in airport construction, the potential role of data and digital technologies in this regard and the major challenges.
T.P. Anantheswaran, Head IT, Navi Mumbai Airport Limited & Mumbai International Airport Ltd

Technology has moved ahead a lot in recent times. However, from the standpoint of construction, what we need to look at is how we can use the entire data collection process for operations.

Projects are using the latest technologies and building artificial intelligence (AI) models to improve project delivery and ensure that all the stakeholders share the same information during the construction phase. I believe that blockchain is going to play a very important role in airport construction because items are being manufactured all over the world and blockchain is used to track the entire supply chain of all the equipment from manufacturing till shipment. For the Navi Mumbai airport project, we want to create a building information modelling (BIM) platform. We are changing and implementing a number of processes, and this is as critical as the technology itself. The actual benefit of the technology should be reaped in the operational phase which spans 50-60 years while the construction period lasts for only three to four years. In terms of data, the weakest part is transfer of that knowledge from project to operations, so the chain has to be maintained from planning till operations. The BIM should form a key input to the Digital Twin.

Sujit Kumar Nag, Former Executive Vice President and Head, Project Management Office, GMR Group

From the perspective of brownfield projects, in Delhi airport, phasing of the work is highly complicated. The project has many interfaces with the operating ecosystems and these make technology application even more challenging. The first step in the application of technology is BIM, which is not just IT per se; it has got everything that goes below the floor to above the ceiling, from aprons to taxi lanes, from taxi lanes to taxiways, and then ultimately the runways. So, there has to be some sort of a common thread of technology that benefits project engineering and can be extended during the life cycle of servicing the airports. Second, when construction is carried out, proper sequencing of all packages needs to be ensured. The development of a dashboard alone will not serve the purpose; we need an analytical tool connected to it. So, only project success is not the order of the day; the order of the day is how we can bring the lifecycle cost within control. In GMR, we have project management that is based on three pillars – project governance, work systems and delivery systems. Project delivery is beyond BIM; it is how efficiently developers bring all the parties together on one common platform. Airport projects start with master planning which is the basic thing, then comes preliminary design and concept design. Global information system and BIM together can serve as a wonderful platform. There is also a need to think beyond BIM, and besides technology adoption people should also be well trained.

Shankar Narayanan, Head, Project Controls and Corporate Centre, Larsen & Toubro

I want to be slightly futuristic in my outlook here and also want to cover difficulties in current deployment of solutions. We generate a lot of data and some of it gets recorded electronically. That said, technologies are available to start treating data as an asset. Transmission of data is a big bottleneck which is going to be eliminated through improving telecom network & cloud computing systems where connectivity & storage is not going to be a problem. Then we have different types of sensors available where some of the data that was not being recorded earlier is now getting transmitted directly to the cloud. Further, AI and big data are also helping businesses analyze data & make better informed decisions. Data is a currency which every organisation is creating. In complex projects like airports there are multiple stakeholders and decision-making happens at multiple levels. Therefore, it is important to analyse whether data collected from the past and a simulation can help in taking better decisions. In a virtual design, we choose which finishing material to use for construction without creating the actual building. Also, we need to see whether similar technologies can facilitate quality control and safety inspections. Since many field data of the projects are now collected and stored on the cloud, it helps us assess many new things like which engineer is more safety conscious at site etc.. We have developed several different Digital field Apps during the past three years. Thus, there are valuable insights which we can get. Just as we prepare a safety plan and a quality plan in a Project, we can have digital plans that would talk about how data can be captured and information can be shared. So, we need to be more futuristic in our outlook. There are gaps which are pain points but there are solutions as well and these solutions need to be conceptualised.

Dr Hari Parameshwar, Executive Director, AECOM – Global Aviation

The key challenge lies in timely and cost-effective delivery of airport projects. The main drive for the delay of each project could be different. For example, Goa airport project has been delayed because of judiciary intervention and environmental issues, and for more than a year, the work was stopped before it restarted. The greenfield airport in Navi Mumbai has been delayed because of promoter-led reasons. However, we can still draw a set of common challenges in aviation projects. One challenge is to get the right contractor as there is a huge scarcity of big contracting firms specialized in handling mega airport projects. Most airport projects are carried out in Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC) mode based on the preliminary design. So, when contractors are bidding for projects, they make a lot of assumptions because of the limited level of design made available to them, but many of them could go wrong during execution stage. This leads to claims and variations, and eventually results in cost overrun. In India, promoters are not permitted to undertake construction activities directly, though this is not the case in many other countries. Also, here we do not focus enough on planning and often run projects under tight timelines, and straight away go into execution mode. Environmental issues are becoming very common and despite having all the clearances in place the projects get delayed as the issues get escalated to tribunal and judiciary.

There are big concerns on how we are adopting digital technologies in India and abroad. Rather than using a 3D model as a construction tool, digital technologies should be taken further to 4D (scheduling), 5D (costing), 6D (sustainability) and finally to 7D (asset management) level and the airport operator should be able to use the same model for operation, maintenance and facility management.

Generally, in India, we take up airport projects under pressure. As and when a project is sanctioned, we are forced to hit the ground without enough time to do detailed planning and design. In the EPC mode we do only the schematic design and the detailed design is done during the construction stage, and this creates many issues in effective project management and cost control. Also, in India, construction safety is given low priority and we need much improvement here. Risk management is not a critical function in many project organizations. We have less mechanization and still depends on the huge labor force to deliver mega projects. At the same time, there is a huge shortage of skilled manpower in the market. India should invest more into advanced digital technologies integrating online project management, document control, BIM/CIM, GIS, ERP, CRM etc. Simulation technologies could be adopted as a powerful tool as this could remove a lot of uncertainty during construction. Robotics, drones, automation based on AI, 3D printing etc. could play major role in aviation projects in coming days.

Anand Sirohi, Director, Key Accounts and Large Projects – SAARC, Trimble

Airport projects involve both horizontal and vertical construction. Most of the airports are like complete real estate hubs creating economic opportunities for many decades, hence airport construction is a very important activity, which should be based on data. Data driven construction provides a unique lifecycle approach to connected, content-enabled and constructible workflows that automate the construction process to realize the full benefits of BIM. The data driven constructible process is proving to be key in propelling construction to new heights where productivity, and timely delivery of the project within budgeted cost are clear benefits. It gives all stakeholders the visibility they need to collaborate more efficiently. Keeping the different stakeholders connected throughout all phases of a project contributes to increased productivity across the supply chain by streamlining operations, preventing delays, and therefore resulting in the best possible outcome and the fastest project completion.

Airport projects in India today use BIM primarily from a design perspective only. Trimble has the ability to connect design BIM to men, machines and materials in the field, thus enabling productive construction of a significantly higher order. The advantage of a common data environment is multifold. It automates the inspection, reporting and project tracking for all stakeholders, integrating different requirements of the project life cycle, right from planning to construction to facilities management and operations.

It should be noted that Data-driven construction is not about BIM alone, but is about integrating data from all sources in any format (manual or automated) and using analytics to provide meaningful insights of the project’s progress to all relevant stakeholders. Given the massive benefits, the technology will pay for itself over the course of time, but what’s important is that it is mandated and budgeted for right in the beginning itself, or else the benefits will be ad-hoc and inconsistent. Data driven construction is a proven technology in many parts of the world with clear benefits, and Trimble will be happy to engage and provide the benefits to the Indian airport projects as well.

S. Sreekumar, Executive Director, Engineering, Airports Authority of India

The Airports Authority of India (AAI) is involved with different type of projects. The runway system is very critical as compared to an airport terminal building. There is lack of digital technologies for construction projects in this area. We need to improve a lot in terms of runway system development capacity. For instance, in Delhi and Chennai, after construction of the runway we were unable to use its full length because of poor data collection on obstacles or it’s analysis. There are ample opportunities for improvement not only in runway systems but in navigation systems as well. There is lot of scope in making use of digital technologies in new Infrastructure. In Chennai, we are going to use digital technologies in a very big way and are ensuring that digital transformation takes place in planning, execution, operation, maintenance and management of airports.

Digital technology is going to play a critical role and success depends on how we are going to make use of data. We have faced a number of problems where we have not taken care of data collection, such as making use of the full length of the runway, and we are trying to improve this. AAI handles several major airports and a number of projects are under planning. There are also many projects particularly under the Regional Connectivity Scheme with small airports coming up. For these projects, we are going for the conventional method only because it is difficult to impart technology to the grassroots level.

In the future, we will be able to make use of digital technology in a better way. I think we need to study customers first which we have not been doing properly. Similarly, commercial use of space is another area which needs attention and can be optimized with the use of AI.

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