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Engineers putting geospatial technologies to work

In today’s brave new world of technology, engineers are using geospatial technology in exciting ways that have practical applications. Geospatial technology is an umbrella term used to describe the disciplines of surveying, mapping and remote sensing. Geographical Information Systems (GIS) is the data management system used to process all of the information.

Lisa Stone, director of the Enterprise for Innovative Geospatial Solutions (EIGS), says her statewide organization is a cluster of programs and companies working to further develop the geospatial industry in Mississippi.“A good number of our member companies are engineering firms who use geospatial technology on a daily basis,” she said. “From work in site development, transportation, surveying, planning, public works, and homeland security to name a few, engineers use geographic information to more efficiently and effectively design and manage projects.”

She added that in the last several years the U.S. Department of Labor has recognized the importance of geospatial technology, particularly as it relates to many professions.

“Within their definition that states that an information technology is a field of practice that acquires, manages, interprets, integrates, displays, analyzes or otherwise uses data focused on the geographic, temporal and spatial context you can see why technology that can assist with the management and display of spatial information would be so integral to design professionals,” she said.

At Maptech, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Neel-Schaffer Engineering of Jackson, the use of geospatial technologies has numerous practical applications. “Over the last ten years, technology has changed rapidly and information is obtained cheaper,” says Maptech’s Chris King. “The GPS that was first put up by the government for military use then given out to the public lets us know exactly where we’re located anywhere on earth.”

He says GPS and GIS have changed all our lives whether we realize it or not. For land use, surveyors can take coordinates and retro fit photography to match the GPS and get contours of land. The system can show hills, the way water will flow and how high water will get downstream in flooding. The Lidar mapping tool that is normally mounted in airplanes sends out millions of little pulses of light and returns the signals to the emitter to map immense areas of terrain.

“After Katrina, the Corps of Engineers had a contractor fly over the Coast with Lidar to see what’s there. That way they can compare it with what was there before Katrina,” he said. “Was all the sand pulled away from the beaches? What’s under the piles of debris?”

King worked on Dauphine Island, Ala., to show where the roads were located. Using geospatial technology and historical documents, he was able to put down stakes for the roads even though they were buried under several feet of sand and not visible.

“It worked out great,” he said. “We located fire hydrants, too, so they wouldn’t be destroyed.”

He points out that ground-mounted Lidar can scan a damaged building to determine exactly what’s happened and whether or not it’s slanted. It’s also used with remote sensing from the sides of roadways so that mapping projects don’t have to shut down those roadways to traffic.

In the debate about shifting tectonic plates, King says a lot of high water lines will be run across the coastline from Pensacola, Fla., to Galveston, Texas, to verify whether or not the coastline is sinking. “We don’t know yet who will be running the study, but we hope to be involved,” he said.
King, who’s been involved with mapping for 35 years, says the biggest challenge is keeping up with technological changes and finding help. “We will train them but they must be willing to learn and travel,” he said.

Michael Baker Engineering, an EIGS member, uses this technology, and Larry Cowart is project manager for geospatial technologies of the 60-year-old Jackson firm. “My department does need assessments for geospatial technologies and develops a plan to implement them across an enterprise,” he said. “We try to help clients fulfill their vision.”

He said geospatial technologies are used to provide mapping data and is incorporated into various software for people to use. Michael Baker Engineering partnered with FEMA to help the disaster agency capture data and post it to its Web site regarding updates of flood maps. “We are also finalizing map model sites of all counties that were impacted for the new flood zones,” Cowart said.

The engineering firm is also using the technology to analyze information for the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT). “If MDOT has a highway coming through, they may ask us to do roadway studies to show where the best place to put it is,” he said. “We perform GIS analysis and give them an idea of where roads could be placed to have the least impact and cost of site.”

Cowart says the more information put into a GIS, the more analysis can be pulled out. That information may include the type of land such as agricultural or forest and names of owners.

As another example of useful application, Cowart points out that the firm recently did an emergency 911 road map for Forrest County to determine the quickest access routes.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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