Cloud computing can refer to many different types of processes, which can be confusing. Household names, such as iCloud, Dropbox, Microsoft Office 365, all use some form of cloud computing to store customer's data and files in a central location away from their home computer or company network.
However, this is just one part of the cloud computing equation. The possibilities go much further and, in the geotechnical world, offer some exciting opportunities for clients looking to record all types of ground information and learn from it.
THE DRILLING SECTOR
Manufacturers such as Bauer and Casagrande already offer cloud subscriptions with the purchase of their drilling and piling rigs. A vast amount of data is collected automatically from rigs' onboard computers and, in recent years, they have been fitted with data connections to allow them to send this data straight back to a cloud system.
These analyse the data from the machines and can inform the owner when a part looks in danger of breaking or the rig needs servicing. Not quite Formula 1, perhaps, but in essence, the system is doing the same job as those found in racing cars.
The data collected can also be used to gauge the performance of the rig operations during a shift and can even estimate geotechnical parameters in real time.
While this can be done using in-cab software, the introduction of cloud computing transforms what is possible. The main advantage comes from removing the 'brain' from the computer in the cab and replacing it with a central brain that can learn from everything it sees. As the brain is central, it sees everything from all the rigs in a fleet or on a project - not just one of them - so learning is far quicker.
Programming of the brain's routines can be updated remotely, allowing software updates to be carried out more often, without any involvement from the IT team and with minimal disruption to operations.
SI DATA COLLECTION
Cloud computing is also starting to find a place in site investigation (SI). The first step has been the wider use of tablets by drillers and site engineers in the UK. This has been driven by SI companies, both large and small, seeking to make efficiency gains, and by large infrastructure projects, such as HS2, which are demanding fast data deliverables.
A recent infrastructure investigation undertaken by engineered solutions provider Aspin Group is a case in point. Aspin was called in when unforeseen ground conditions were encountered on one section of a major rail project, which threatened to delay another part of the scheme. Data was needed urgently, to enable the client to mitigate ground-related risk.
Time was tight, with investigations having to be carried out within a one-month window, explains Aspin senior geologist and ground investigation manager Nick Bisby. "We needed to process and deliver the investigation data quickly, to allow the client to assess the information as fast as possible, so work on this part of the scheme could start," he says.
Aspin used window sampling and dynamic probing to investigate the ground and groundwater conditions, with KeyLogBook tablets used to record drilling and in situ test data on site. Logging of soils recovered from the window sampling boreholes was also carried out using KeyLogBook, where possible.
"Site data was transferred to the office immediately in AGS format once each borehole was finished, then it was uploaded to our data management system, HoleBASE," Bisby explains. "As a result, the client received field data faster than normal, allowing it to schedule the laboratory testing quickly and giving enough time to review data before the start of the main works."
Bisby estimates that the company saved up to one-hour of drilling time per shift and halved the time spent on data entry - no paper logs were used. "We saved even more time when the engineers' logs were entered digitally," he adds. "We believe this approach offers very significant efficiencies in terms of speed, as well as saving time and money."
While the version of KeyLogBook software Aspin used on this particular project did not use cloud computing, the next generation of on-site logging tools will harness the power of both these systems, driving even more benefits and saving more time and money in data collection.
First, by having constant contact with a central cloud system, data can be backed-up automatically (and therefore safe) and can be made immediately available to other team members or the client. Data can just sync and does not have to be sent via email - aside from the reduction in inbox clutter, this greatly improves security during transmission. It is also worth remembering that the system can still work without the internet; data is simply transferred when a mobile data signal or internet connection becomes available.
Second, removing some of the brains from the handheld device means software is less power hungry, allowing it to run faster and smoother on site. Updates - such as logging procedures and new functionality - can be made centrally and rolled out remotely, without any changes to hardware, a big positive for a company's IT team.
Finally, additional data can be downloaded easily from the current, or previous, phase of a project. This can include borehole location information, client instructions or borehole data, for comparison with current observations.
Once data is in the cloud, data management is truly transformed. For example, not only can data be uploaded by company staff, but suppliers and subcontractors, such as laboratory test houses, can also upload results directly, which can be validated before they reach the data management system, improving quality control.
Cloud-based systems enable data to be shared easily between an organisation's projects, engineers and offices. This allows data to be combined to generate valuable insight that can give a significant competitive advantage.
They can also ensure that data formats are standardised, making data easier to share, manage, audit and review before issuing to the client, which of course can be given access to the project's digital data much faster (quality assurance issues notwithstanding), than a hardcopy report. For example, ground data, including drilling records, can be combined and presented as a 3D visualisation almost immediately, helping early understanding of the geotechnical issues. Security is also far higher when transferring data via the cloud, rather than email.
Holding data on a cloud platform also improves connectivity and allows software developers to increase capability, without incurring high development costs. For example, Keynetix's own system, Keynetix.cloud, has a programmable interface that developers can use to connect different software. There are currently 15 companies developing connections and applications for the system.
The geotechnical and IT industries move at different speeds, with the former still using techniques pioneered many years ago and the latter completely transforming itself every decade or so. Cloud computing is the latest of these transformations, giving drilling companies the ideal opportunity to adopt new technology and put themselves ahead of their competition.
Roger Chandler is managing director of Keynetix, the software development company behind HoleBASE and Keynetix.cloud. Keynetix developed KeyLogBook in partnership with Equipe Group