Technology in 2018: The 5 key trends in public works

By intouch posted 09-08-2018 10:28


This article was first published in APWA Reporter, the journal of the American Public Works Association.

By Helen Horwitz, Principal HLH Communications, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Late last year, the American Public Works Association conducted an online survey asking members to name the single most important technology for public works professionals in 2018.

Drone_bridge_inspection.jpgAlmost 900 members responded, and from the answers, APWA gathered considerable data, narrowing the list to the top five. In descending order, they are:


  1. Geographic information systems (GIS) and mapping
  2. Autonomous/connected vehicles and equipment
  3. Drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)
  4. Asset management
  5. Global positioning systems (GPS)/autonomous vehicle location (AVL) and telematics

According to responses, these cutting-edge endeavours are most influencing – or are trending to influence – how public works departments are using technology this year.

GIS: Improving performance and accountability

With good reason, public works professionals consider geographic information systems, or GIS, the most trending and relevant technology advancement for the field in 2018. With the ability to capture, store, manipulate, analyse, manage and present spatial or geographic data, GIS can provide virtually any public works department with a powerful and versatile data infrastructure.

GIS helps users to gather and understand data, make better operational decisions and report meaningful results to stakeholders. When shared internally, GIS-generated information demonstrates the value of investments to the leadership and strengthens new budget requests. When results are released to taxpayers, they see how well their money was spent.

“With millions of dollars in assets owned by the community, GIS tells us precisely what’s there, how it’s being used, and its condition,” says Matt Steging, Knowledge Management/GIS Manager for Olathe, Kansas. “We integrate our GIS with other systems, such as our Computerized Maintenance Management System (CMMS), to help the city do a better job of keeping up with inspections and work orders.”

He explains that in concert with CMMS, GIS joins 21 databases together – for example, mapping where all manholes are located in a certain area. “Or, if it’s been determined that 25% of all water hydrants should be inspected this year, the system will analyse the location of each one in a given area and create work orders based on the proximity of each hydrant,” he continues.

In Olathe, a city of 150,000 in northeastern Kansas, the Public Works Department encompasses a broad range of services—from stormwater to traffic operations. In his role as Knowledge Manager, Steging works with individuals in various departments to collect their data and use it.

“The city started in the mid-1990s to develop a GIS mapping program,” he says. “Today, it has advanced considerably. Public works departments expect the system to be there—accessible and reliable.”

“It’s an ever-changing technology, especially with web mapping,” he says. “Where we once printed out a PDF of a map, we now have 40 different web maps tailored to different work groups.” 

Up the Interstate, in Overland Park, Mike Nelson is an Analyst in the GIS Division of the Planning Department. “We don’t have a full-service public works department, since several functions reside elsewhere,” he says. “This helps us focus on making the utilities we own more useful by improving their operational performance.” 

GIS tracks and carefully manages Overland Park’s traffic infrastructure. “With every traffic signal entered in the system, we can quickly look at a location, tell what equipment is there and schedule a work order,” explains Nelson. “It also helps to pinpoint citizen complaints so we can quickly repair or replace something.” 

During the winter, the Snow Map system on the city website is popular with Overland Park’s 185,000 residents. Snowplows are equipped with Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL), providing people with current information on both pre-treatment and snow removal efforts in their area. 

Steging believes GIS is moving toward web-based systems and away from desktop-command software. Also, Nelson and Steging agree that 3-D mapping is the next step for them in the GIS evolution. Nelson observes that if Overland Park’s infrastructure were available in 3-D, it would be useful when planning new fiber optic lines, for example. “Unfortunately, it takes time to enter the necessary data for 3-D mapping, and we’re already busy 100 % of the time,” he says.

Autonomous and connected vehicles: it’s a long, winding road

smart_Car_v6_insaid-846879472_1368x769.jpegIn 1953, a short story by science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov included autonomous cars with “positronic brains” that communicated via honking horns and slamming doors. Last year, the film Blade Runner 2049 opened with an android policeman nearing his destination in a three-wheeled autonomous flying vehicle.

Such fanciful scenarios are not pie-in-the-sky. The automotive industry is investing heavily in R&D for fully autonomous vehicles, or AVs, that operate without driver intervention. In reality, however, AVs could still be a good 20 years away, according to Tim Austin, P.E., of Kaw Valley Engineering in Wichita, Kansas.

 He’s optimistic that connected vehicles – an incremental technological advance – will have their day much sooner. Austin, who chairs APWA’s Subcommittee for Connected Vehicles and is a Past President of the National Society of Professional Engineers, calls them an “emerging concept.”

“The ‘connected vehicle’ term started appearing over 10 years ago in Google searches,” he says, “and now it’s part of the vocabulary as the industry works to enhance vehicle use through broader use of broadband and other communications networks.”

Since 1997, when GM introduced Onstar in several Cadillac models, the connected car has made remarkable advances. Today, an array of on-board sensors, cameras and radar applications warns drivers of an imminent danger so they can take action; some, such as autonomous emergency braking and adaptive cruise control, actually intervene.

The next big thing is expected to be vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology so cars can speak to each other, as well as V2X, or vehicle-to-everything, including infrastructure, and V2P, vehicle-to-pedestrian. The primary purpose of these technologies is to improve safety. V2V enables vehicles to continually communicate to others around them so each is aware of the others’ speed, heading and direction. V2X can alert drivers to hazardous road areas as well as provide automatic control of signal timing, speed management, and operating transit and commercial vehicles.

AVs, while further down the road, have captured considerable attention. In late 2017, Audi announced that its new A8 would let drivers read the paper or sightsee, provided they are prepared to take back the wheel after a warning. At the January 2018 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Phantom Auto demonstrated the first remote-controlled car on public roads.

Such advances are paving the way for a momentous transformation in transportation; called the Intelligent Transportation System (ITS), it will make driving and traffic management both better and safer for everyone. But Austin points to two major obstacles that first must be overcome:

  1. No one standard is emerging for the communications infrastructure
  2. The overarching question is who will pay for it

“There are many unknowns in the industry’s rush to these new technologies and in being one of the first to market,” he warns. A 2014 report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration cites the issues, including the need for secure communications systems, manufacturers’ liability concerns and privacy. Another is whether consumers will agree to periodically obtain new security certificates from the dealership—or opt to drive with non-functioning V2V capabilities. 

Given the difficulty of trying to plan for a new infrastructure with so many unknowns, Tim Austin recommends that public works departments adopt a wait-and-see attitude—including about possible funding requirements. “The auto industry may even take a cue from the cellular communications providers, who have built their own.”

Drones and unmanned aerial vehicles: They’re flying high

Texas game wardens recently received a camera-equipped drone to help with search and rescue missions. It will enable a real-time HD video feed—including dangerous conditions such as swiftly moving water, downed power lines and hazardous materials. 

In Canada, Renfrew County, Ontario, has become the first paramedic service to receive government approval to use drones in medical emergencies. The service can now drop lifesaving supplies like naloxone kits and defibrillators when weather, traffic or other conditions prevent paramedics from reaching patients quickly.

As drone technology drops in price, public works departments are taking notice. Whether the purpose is public safety, construction inspections, erosion control or many other applications, the drone is safer, cheaper and often more thorough than sending up people in a helicopter. A drone with an on-board camera also can easily travel to tight or difficult places, such as underneath bridges. 

The word “drone” can have negative connotations because of its association with controversial military uses. Drone advocates often use UAV for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or UAS for Unmanned Aerial Systems which encompasses the vehicle that flies, the ground-based controller and the communications that connects them.

The drone industry got a big boost in 2015 when the FAA granted hundreds of new exemptions for commercially operated drones in the U.S. and also mandated a registry for drones weighing more than 250 grams (8.1 oz.). In early 2018, the registry totaled more than one million, with about 850,000 hobbyist users; interestingly, commercial registrations have been rising, while hobbyists’ decreased.

“In 2016, the FAA issued regulations closely restricting drone usage and who may fly them,” says Mike Sutherland. “These rules, known as Small Unmanned Aircraft Rule, Part 107, also include requirements for pilot certification.”

A long-time drone enthusiast, Sutherland retired in 2016 as Director of Public Works and the Emergency Operations Center in Parker, Colorado. He chaired APWA’s Emergency Management Committee, and with Seth Swaim of WithersRavenel, presented a 2017 APWA Click, Listen & Learn program on drones (“UFO or UAV? The Welcome Invasion of Drones in the Public Works World”).

He notes the FAA restricts drones from flying higher than 400 feet above ground level. Also, they must remain within the visual line-of-sight of the pilot in command and the person manipulating the flight controls, can operate only during daylight, and cannot fly over non-participants. (All details are available here.

Sutherland predicts a big future for drones in virtually every public works department. “In a few years, every public works department will have a certified pilot either on staff or contracted to handle drone needs,” he says.

During the devastating 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, UAVs were used to safely inspect the damage and to search for survivors. “For a fraction of what helicopter time would have cost, UAVs were deployed in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and U.S. islands and territories,” he says.

In a calmer scenario, a drone can systematically view and photograph a 50-acre property in 20 minutes. An inspector then analyzes the footage and completes the assessment in two or three hours.

Commercial-grade UAVs can cost as little as $1000, although Sutherland says most public works departments should expect to spend about $3000 for a heavy-duty drone that can accommodate different cameras or sensors. Several manufacturers make commercial-grade drones, but a recent survey reported that China-based DJI accounts for 70% of the market.

Call it a drone, a UAV or a UAS, but it’s almost certain: If your public works department doesn’t already have one, it soon will.

Asset management: What it is and isn't 

First things first: Asset Management (AM) is no more a 'technology' than are risk or quality management. The ISO 55000 International Standard on Asset Management defines it as “the coordinated activity of an organisation to realise value from assets.”

Toby Rickman, P.E., PWLF, who heads the APWA National Task Force on Asset Management, thinks the reason why many members considered AM a technology when responding to APWA’s survey last fall is this: today, public works professionals rely heavily on technology to optimise the resources they have at hand.

“It hasn’t been too many years since we’ve been able to walk onto a field with a smart phone and assess a physical asset we’re responsible for,” he says. “We’re using new technology and new skills, but implementing what we have more effectively and efficiently.”

Chris Champion was IPWEA CEO for 15 years, where he led the organisation to become internationally recognised for its work in infrastructure asset management.

“An organisation’s AM system is the people, processes, tools and the resources involved in the delivery of asset management,” affirms Champion.

“An AM Information System, or the technology, is merely a component." 

Another reason why asset management is top-of-mind for public works professionals is growing concern about the financial and service sustainability of roads, bridges, water supply and other infrastructure networks.

Champion comments, “There is increasing recognition that organisations have been making short-term decisions about investment, maintenance and renewal that are not sustainable over the long term." 

He describes the situation as “the perfect storm of a steadily shrinking funding base, low affordability, ageing infrastructure, and areas of both growing and declining population creating huge challenges for infrastructure managers.”

He adds, “International AM practice addresses these challenges with six questions: What are my required levels of service? How will demand change over time? What is the current state of my assets? What are the risks they may not meet current and future demands? What is the long-term service cost? What is my best long-term strategy for operating, maintaining, replacing and improving assets?”

Rickman, who is Deputy Director for Planning and Public Works for Pierce County, Washington, says, “Whether we’re in Miami or Maine, all APWA members are taking care of the same infrastructure. We have so much in common, and we should try to learn from each other.”

When it wraps up later this year, APWA’s Asset Management Task Force expects to provide members with tools they need to develop their asset management systems, enhance their awareness of AM, and further their efforts in advocating for it in their organisations. A standardised road map for implementing asset management in public works will be included. 

“Tools that will soon be available on APWA’s website include a self-assessment tool, a template for reporting to elected officials and the public, and a draft road map with case studies for developing an AM system,” states Rickman. 

“We also are leveraging what has been achieved internationally,” he adds. “British Commonwealth nations traditionally have a strong federalisation of their infrastructure and some funding in Canada is now tied to asset management requirements. Federal funds earmarked to rehabilitate infrastructure demand a guarantee that the money will be used wisely.”

Concludes Chris Champion, “International best practice has asset and financial managers working collaboratively on long-term financial need forecasts. It’s about the lowest long-term cost, rather than short-term savings—a long-term strategy to sustainably manage and deliver your community’s desired and affordable service levels.” 

GPS/AVL/telematics: Interconnected applications = telematics

In the survey to choose the most important technology for public works in 2018, APWA members voted a collective fifth place to global positioning systems, automatic vehicle location and telematics.

But Lloyd Brierley prefers to use the umbrella term 'telematics' when referring to these interconnected fields; they encompass telecommunications, vehicle technologies, road transportation and safety, as well as aspects of electrical engineering and computer science.

Brierley should know. As General Manager of the Fleet Services Division for the City of Toronto, he oversees using telematics as a data-driven tool to help lead a very large and complex fleet.

As of December 2016, more than 4000 city-owned or contracted vehicles were equipped with one or more forms of telematics, under the city’s many fleet operations. The Fleet Services Division provides overall telematics vendor and contract management for the Public Works Fleet, including issue resolution and process development. Overall, Toronto, which is the fourth largest city in North America, has about 10,000 on-road vehicles, plus more off-road and specialised equipment to help serve its population of almost three million people.

The fleet uses a range of telematics solutions including basic and advanced GPS. The basic unit supplies information on speed, braking and distance traveled. The more advanced units include additional features, including sensors for vehicle operating devices such as snowplows, salters/sanders, telescopic booms and other specialized equipment. When combined with the GPS, the sensors deliver information on the vehicle and the operating device. 

“The City of Toronto has been using telematics since 2003,” says Brierley, “and its usefulness as a data-driven tool is still emerging.” A member of the APWA Fleet Services Committee, he notes that most public works organizations implement telematics to improve safety, better manage fleets and improve emergency capabilities. He adds that the technology is also a significant opportunity for better asset management.

One telematics application currently used by Toronto’s Fleet Management organisation is utilisation management and fleet rightsizing, in which automated processes capture meter readings, engine hours and vehicle use to identify under-utilised units. Utilisation data can also be used to drive reliability-centred maintenance, which schedules maintenance based on usage, idling and fuel consumption instead of time.  

Telematics is providing important new benefits for effectively managing Toronto’s large fleet. For example, Brierley says that before a telematics-based system was implemented, the 300,000 yearly fuel transactions suffered from a 30% failure rate. “This greatly slowed down efficiency,” he points out, “because the driver had to call the fuel desk where someone would have to correct the issue and authorise the transaction. The telematics system automated the process and we’ve reduced calls to the fuel desk to less than 1% of all transactions.” 

He says growing numbers of employees are appreciating the benefits of telematics, including when it protects them from false grievances. “After a citizen complained about a truck unnecessarily speeding through a city street, we used data from the GPS to prove that the complainant was wrong,” recalls Brierley. “Being able to successfully defend our employees sends a powerful message.”

Lloyd Brierley advises that public works managers who are interested in implementing telematics solutions in their organisations begin by mapping out an end-to-end plan, with return-on-investment as the most important part.

“You need a plan for what you’re going to do with it,” he says, “as well as what data will be important to you, and what you will do with it. Excellent information is available to help with the planning, but it’s vital to ensure that operational processes include tactics to maintain the smooth, ongoing functioning of all areas.”

Helen Horwitz can be reached at 



Please log in to add a comment.