ALAN BARROW: MRICS, FINSTCES, FOUNDER & MANAGING DIRECTOR OF ABA SURVEYING LTD

Past President of The Chartered Institution of Civil Engineering Surveyors, and a lifelong surveyor since leaving college where he passed the RICS examination specialising in Land and Engineering Surveying, Alan has consistently been at the surveying forefront, with his contribution being recognised by the University of East London conferring on him an Honorary Doctorate in Science.

 

How did you get started in the industry?

My first experience of surveying started in the railway sector when the Channel Tunnel was being constructed. Balfour Beatty were contracted to install and set the OCS (overhead line equipment) before any track was in place. Having no track meant the heights and staggers schedules supplied by the designers could not be used.

The OCS was supported by two-part Halfen brackets with the channel part bolted into four locating holes cast into the tunnel segments. The second part of this bracket was the registration arm which could be slid up and down in the channel section.

This was 1990 remember, and OCS engineers knew very little about coordinates at this time. Fortunately, ABA Surveying did and, being a software writer myself, I was employed to devise the system and write the software linking together the as-built surveyed coordinates of the bracket mounting holes, the tunnel soffit at that point, the track design alignments and then applying the planned heights and staggers to finally produce a printout for each bracket location. The printout listed the distance up the Halfen bracket channel to set the second part of the bracket, the distance along the registration arm to set the registration point and finally a dimension down from the tunnel soffit to the contact wire.

‘Can do’ then became the byword which has underpinned ABA Surveying’s reputation and is still in evidence today.

What was the inspiration behind starting ABA Surveying?

I had been Chief Surveyor with two international survey companies and had become frustrated by my inability to act quickly and take advantage of fast emerging technologies. With these big companies, business cases, can we afford it, we’ve never done it this way before all became sources of frustration and inhibited the progress that I wanted and considered would become inevitable at some time.

ABA Surveying was started expressly to provide our clients with a professional surveying service, secure in the knowledge that the service they were getting was truly the best service possible considering both the techniques and the technology available. This philosophy continues and we have purposely kept to a small company, so that we can continue to be in charge of our own destiny.

How has technology developed since you started in the industry?

When I started surveying, state of the art data collection was done by a survey team of two using a horizontal bar tacheometer. Booking the point number, horizontal angle, vertical angle, distance and target height was all done by hand together with a field sketch. The control traverse was calculated using Peters trigonometric tables and a mechanical calculating machine, either a Brunsviga or Facit. The observed detail points were then plotted by hand back in the office by a draughtsperson using a manual polar plotter.

Only the key detail points were surveyed in this way and a revisit to site was needed to infill the rest of the detail by taping it in. In this way, on a good day the survey team together with the draughtsperson would achieve a progress of 150 detail points plotted each day at a cost then of around a £1 per point. In the last sixty years the contribution that electronics have made to the surveying profession has been phenomenal and continues to develop exponentially.

We now have EDM (electro-magnetic-distance-measurement), total stations (now with contactless laser measurement), GPS (now called GNSS – Global Navigation Satellite Systems), UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles or drones), USVs (unmanned surface vessels), multibeam side-scan sonar, 3D scanners and automatic reading levels in our armoury.

With a press of a button we now know our absolute 3D position in the world to an accuracy of 25mm or better in a second or two. We can also measure, code and record a point with a total station to an accuracy of 1mm or so in just a few seconds and use a 3D scanner to record a site with 400 million points to an accuracy of 1-2mm in just three minutes. If only we were paid the same rate per point now as when I first started surveying!

The process times involved have completely changed around. Whereas it used to be 85 per cent fieldwork and 15 per cent office work it is now 15 per centfieldwork and 85 per cent office work. Our focus now is on reducing the office time and we do this by continually streamlining our processes and writing bespoke software to support this.

Since the coming of 3D scanning in late 1999, we can often capture the whole site in just a day and now process it to the final deliverables back in the office where we are in controlled conditions and not exposed to the vagaries of the weather.

What is your USP (Unique Selling Point)?

We are easy to talk to and we listen. Our reputation for motivation and accuracy, coupled with our experience, brings solutions to our client’s problems.

When a client comes to you with a particular problem, what’s your process for coming up with a solution, and how closely do you work with clients throughout the projects?

We listen to them very carefully to understand their requirement for the survey data, the accuracy they are needing to satisfy their design purpose, their timescale for the requirement and, of course, their budget. These are all factors which will influence the proposal we put to them. We have all the survey technology in house to be able to present to clients a solution which best satisfies their requirements, particularly as surveying techniques have moved so fast that many designers remain unaware of the surveying possibilities that are available.

What are some standout projects you’ve been involved in over the years?

We have been involved in so many major projects like West Coast Mainline upgrade, Euston re-modelling, Thameslink, Crossrail, HS2 and many more that it is difficult to choose between them.

I guess the Thameslink Programme was a gamechanger where, in 2002, we introduced the Thameslink team to 3D scanning in both static tripod mounted form and in kinematic form in 2003 with our TMDs (Track Measuring Devices).

We used the original datasets throughout the life of the project from 2002 to 2018, updating them as the construction progressed – BIM in action even before it was conceived.!

A more recent and rather unique project involved Hammersmith Bridge over the Thames which has been closed since 2020 following the identification of micro-fractures in the 136-year-old structure. The proposed solution involved reinforcement to the structure at sixteen locations. The reinforcements were to be milled from 1.4m x 0.85m x0.85m thick steel blocks and had to fit precisely to the contours of the original castings to an accuracy of 0.1mm.

We proposed the system, scanned the original castings, modelled the surfaces and produced the digital STEP files for the company who were to do the milling. In approving our proposal, the consultants first checked the early datasets against the original castings using a straightedge and feeler gauges and found nothing exceeding 0.1mm.

What are your plans going forward to ensure ABA Surveying services are still around for years to come?

You could say that those plans were laid some fifty years ago with the birth of my two sons.

Both sons have joined me in the business and my eldest grandson joined us two years ago.

With three generations in the business I think we have the succession plan sorted, at least from my point of view.

On a more serious note, it is often said that inter-operability doesn’t exist between software companies, and we would add that it doesn’t exist between clients either. Our clients have all developed their own versions of BIM with different specifications, detail content, coding structures, layer names, presentation details and a host of other differences.

As a company we cannot possibly accommodate so much variation at the data capture and production levels, to do so would only cause confusion and increase the likelihood of mistakes.

We have therefore developed our own procedures which enable us to capture all data and extract and structure the deliverables to our client’s requirements through our own translation software. This is a continual development for us and will see us well into the future.

What new developments/strategies do you have?

We have always been at the leading edge of survey developments since our use of kinematic scanning for data capture on the railway in 2003 followed by our mobile scanning rig for the road in 2009.

Our goal now is making these systems smaller, more portable and with more functionality. The mobile scanning rig is now complete and has been used very successfully for capturing railway corridor detail to 1-2mm accuracy but at a walking speed of 3kph+. We are thrilled with the resolution of the resulting pointcloud which is even better than our standard method of static scanning everything and five times faster. The portability of the rig means that we can now use it on road, rail and water.

We are, even now, developing our own software to extract detail automatically from this dataset.

We do have a further hardware development in its advanced stages, but I can’t say more about it just now. Maybe in six months – watch this space.

What would you say is the most exciting technology in the industry?

The most exciting technology has been the developments in 3D scanners and will remain so for the foreseeable future. We recognised the potential for 3D scanning and were the first company to buy a 3D scanner for survey purposes as far back as 1999.

The point cloud has completely replaced the field book for the surveyor in that it captures the complete scene and all detail, whether you want it or not, in just a few minutes and to an accuracy of millimetres. It brings a highly detailed digital twin of the real world into the office thus allowing the data extraction to be done under controlled conditions, 24/7 if necessary, and at no risk from the weather or time constraints. It is truly the least risk method of surveying.

• It is non-intrusive and non-contact.
• It captures everything in view.
• It can be done from a place of safety.
• It works equally well in the dark as in the daylight.
• It means less boots on the ground and for significantly less time.

What are some of the biggest challenges this sector currently faces?

In my opinion there are two challenges, lack of staff and the procurement system. The first is that the profession is seriously undervalued which has contributed to the current lack of properly trained and qualified surveyors. This is being offset to some degree by the adoption of automated data collection which has become a push button exercise and can be done with little training.

But – and it is a big but – we still need the fully trained staff to take possession of the captured datasets and process them through to deliverables for our clients. At the moment this training is having to be done by the companies themselves with varying results and more needs to be done by academia to increase the supply of trained surveyors.

This will only happen if the profile and status of surveying is raised, maybe by regulation but certainly by remuneration, such that more students are attracted to surveying as a worthwhile career and start to populate the academic route.

Geospatial data is of increasing importance to the management of our environment and the assets within it so I believe UK The Geospatial Commission could itself be much more pro-active.

The second big challenge is, I believe, the procurement route which, in its current form, does nothing but lead to a race to the bottom. There can be a lack of understanding by our clients about the possibly different surveying solutions offered and this is evident in the way they procure their surveying services.

For transparency reasons, most large procurements are done by open tender, managed by the ‘buying department’ with a PQQ (prequalification questionnaire) and a price. The PQQ is generally a series of tick boxes more directed towards rectifying perceived social inequality than for evaluating the competency of the bidder. The client’s assumption being that any risk to them is covered within the fixed price. Tick all the boxes, lowest price, get the job. No consideration is given to the risk to the contract through weather, access, performance, results or simply in delay to the project and in my opinion the method of survey can have a significant impact on all these risk factors.

Too many clients can be hoodwinked by marketing ploys, drone surveys being a typical example of this over recent years. When a survey goes wrong, the buyer will blame the company and hold the opinion ‘we tried that, and it didn’t work’ for many years to come. In reality, it is usually the buyer who is at fault by not researching the proposed method and company experience in more detail. Nobody objects to competition but, please can we have a level playing field?

My suggestion would be for potential clients to get their survey managers to approve a select list of survey providers based on proven capabilities, and for the work to be let on a mini-tender basis among these approved providers.

What are your views on collaborative working?

Collaborative working is a very important concept and very often provides the best solution for the client. Our company has the equipment to carry out static scanning, mobile scanning for road and rail, UAV surveys and bathymetric surveying, but our investment in equipment is over £2 million which many smaller companies could not afford.

Admittedly they could hire in the equipment, but that doesn’t come with our experience to use it efficiently and properly, and collaboration might well be a better solution.

We collaborate with other survey companies where our expertise fills a gap in their capability.

We do the same when we have a gap in our own capability or, more usually, when additional resource is required.