Machine Data Maestro

By Frank Raczon, Senior Editor | January 24, 2019
GPS manager hands off accurate models of the job site.
The GPS manager’s goal is to hand off accurate models to on-site superintendents and foremen so they can best manage jobs.

“Every job I’ve finished, I’ve never had somebody come back to me and say I did it wrong,” says Lyle Ballou, GPS manager for DXI (formerly Dixie) Construction, Churchville, Maryland. “I take pride in that—I know the job is set up and modeled correctly.”

Ballou is confident because of his 15 years of experience installing and working with GPS systems and machine control as tools for DXI’s job-site and project-management efforts. He is solely responsible for the company’s ongoing GPS journey, and he’s also taking the company forward with a drone program. He’s the conductor and the band, all in one.

DXI is a site preparation and utility contractor with 50 years in business and more than 300 employees working in four states: Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, and Pennsylvania.

The company was an early adopter of GPS technology, starting just after the turn of the century.

Now, with Ballou at the GPS helm, DXI’s data-enabled fleet includes two excavators, a grader, and 14 Caterpillar D6 crawler dozers equipped with GPS and machine control.

“It’s my job to make sure the accuracy is there as far as [moving] from the estimators drawing CADs to the 3D models to on-the-ground GPS survey control, because if you don’t have that locked in and tight, you won’t be grading correctly,” Ballou says. “All the reports you have are going to be a waste of time if you’re not grading accurately. I use Mesh Consulting for my GPS models. Having someone you trust is key.”

Ballou uses a variety of technology, including Topcon’s Sitelink3D, to ensure his superintendents and operators have real-time data control and access to machine tracking and reporting. Machine control works with the system to make sure projects stay in place and on grade.

DXI relies on GPS to move thousands of yards of dirt per project.
DXI relies on GPS to move thousands of yards of dirt per project.

“Once I locate the job and feel comfortable, then I hand it off to the foreman,” Ballou says. “The jobs should run themselves. If there are technical issues or troubleshooting, or training needed once the job starts, I can do it through Sitelink. The job stays running and I can work remotely most of the time.”

Ballou can see the percent of job that’s to grade, whether machines are moving or sitting, and he can have foremen perform as-builts from hundreds of miles away. “They can upload that data and I can retrieve it and do my reporting that I need to send back to estimating or the engineers—all remotely.”

He says his utility crews take advantage of the technology as well, running GR-5 rovers where they are laying out jobs and checking work.

GPS technology is expected

“It’s expected that we have GPS and machine control on every job, so every job we have, we model,” Ballou says. “It doesn’t matter how big or small it is. We know that just having site control, being able to do all our pre-existing and as-built topos that we start with, that’s priority No. 1.

“We concentrate heavily on machine control. For example, we run a Topcon NET-G5 base down at a reclamation of Bethlehem Steel at Sparrow’s Point near Baltimore,” Ballou says. “It’s 3,000 acres and we’re running four projects that are able to run off one base, which is nice. I put it on the job trailer there, it sits 20 feet in the air, and it’s wired into the side of the trailer and plugged into AC. It runs 24 hours a day, and the operators just turn on a machine, check a point, and go.”

Ballou uses the base as a fixed point to do his locating when he starts a new project at the site. “It’s got about a two-mile range, which is not much more than our typical base unit, but the fact you don’t have to charge it and can keep it running 24 hours is the benefit.”

DXI has found a myriad of benefits with GPS, and some of them are beyond tracking positioning and reporting or adjusting production.

“For an Amazon fulfillment center, we were contracted to move 400,000 yards in a month-and-a-half,” Ballou says. “We worked three shifts, and GPS helped at night with the grading because you can see your grades [from a display in the cab]. We’ve completed three other similar projects, with another starting soon.”

The technology mix has also saved DXI a considerable amount of money. “It’s in the hundreds of thousands for machine control, if you look at it just from the stakeout side of it,” Ballou says. “We don’t do full survey stakeout, we select a few jobs we want that I will layout, and I’m saving $80,000 to $90,000 annually on layout alone.”

And it has saved time, both in preventing unnecessary passes on landfill sites, and for Ballou personally, in that he doesn’t need to drive to as many projects. At one time, when changes were made to a job design, there was no other choice but to load the new data into a jump drive, take a pickup to the site, and manually download the data.

Going mastless with machine control

What Ballou does spend a great deal of time on is researching the latest in GPS and machine-control technology, and he has an idea where his next frontier will be.

“Obviously, [the industry is] going away from masts,” Ballou says. “Topcon’s got 3D-MC Max that’s mastless. I demo’d it, but the bugs weren’t out of it. They say they have them out now, so going into 2019 that will probably be my next investment.

“Guys will get in tight spots in buildings sometimes and they’ll forget the mast is on the dozer blade,” he says. “They’ll bend the pole or break the antenna off. It doesn’t happen that often, but it can happen. To not have the mast is beneficial, because it’s just less handling. If you never touch it, it’s less likely to be damaged or broken.”

When Ballou first installed the technology, he would cut 18 inches off the poles. “There was no change in the performance when I sawed them off,” he says. “I’ve been at this since 2004, and at first it was a big concern because they thought it would decrease performance, but over time they found it didn’t.”

Data from above

“I fly topos now with a drone,” Ballou says. “I have my UAV license and I partner with Identified Technologies. I’ve probably got 130 to 140 flights in over the last year.” He uses a Topcon system with the drone.

“I lay down ground control for it, and the targets, and we use PPK processing for that,” Ballou says. “I’ve been working for years to get this going, but my next battle is questioning the accuracy.”

Ballou says that, in general, the accuracy is there, but the problem is in the details—as in too much detail.

“It will pick up a fire hydrant, or a silt fence, every detail,” he says. “If I fly near a tree line, it can pick some of that up.” When non-dirt details are picked up, they can affect the contours, showing them as going up and down when in reality, there’s just a tall object present.

As a result, it’s been difficult to convince his estimators of the accuracy. Ballou must go back to his modeling company, sometimes more than once, incurring time cleaning the data for takeoff and modeling purposes.

“You’ve really got to consider the sites you’re flying,” Ballou says. “The drone has a hard time with tall grass. If a site’s not mowed, you really can’t use the drone.”

Even with the aerial data, for now Ballou still goes out and builds the topo. “They trust that over the drone, so I do a combination of both. I’m out there flying 20 minutes for a 100-acre site, but I can still perform the topo and compare the two. If it’s a good, clean site, they’re close.”

Ballou says technology is advancing with filters and programs, such as Pix4D. “You can put a filter in there for anything within five feet, put parameters in there, and it will flatten those contours out.”

He pays a subscription to his vendor for the drone; DXI does not own it.

“In my research, it didn’t seem to be value-added to own the drone,” Ballou says. “You would have to maintain it and handle all the updates. And with a monthly subscription, they clean all my data and post it to their websites. I get an email telling me it’s ready. Every flight after the first one is in there, and production can go in with a password; anyone can have access to that.

“It’s a work in progress. The initial topo is the only glitch I have right now,” Ballou says.

“DXI knows how value-added all this technology is. I’m biased, but it makes my job unique. I just know that my accuracy is there, my modeling is there. And it’s been amazing the time saved not having to drive [to some job sites] because you can watch and report on jobs remotely. We’ve been able to maintain and increase efficiency.

“It’s not about hiring more people to do what I do, it’s about accuracy and getting it into the hands of the superintendents and foremen, the guys who are on the job every day,” Ballou says.

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