Knowledge is power: Asset management in local government

Elena Major, from ARPAS-UK, the UK Drone Association, looks at the role of asset management for local authorities and why now is the time for technology investment to drive acerbated, long-term assessment management once the pandemic is over

The World Economic Forum observes that: “Infrastructure is essential for sustained economic growth, competitiveness and social progress. While building new infrastructure assets ranks high on the global agenda, governments in both developed and developing countries often neglect their existing infrastructure assets—witness the increasing congestion, unnecessary operational costs and inadequate maintenance. Against the backdrop of increasing user demand, constrained financing and an ageing asset base, it is imperative for governments to make the most of their existing infrastructure assets—specifically, to increase the assets’ productivity and longevity.”

One major area for local government is asset management: the practice of managing infrastructure assets to minimise the total cost of owning and operating these assets while delivering desired service levels.  There are two schools of thought on this: reactive maintenance vs proactive maintenance. Proactive maintenance involves regular inspections and using predictive technologies to find problems before they occur. Reactive maintenance involves fixing equipment after it breaks. Operating within a reactive maintenance protocol, local government can expect costs to be two-three times more than operating in a proactive environment.

Advocates for proactive maintenance cite benefits such as improved planning, increased worker efficiency, better inventory control (parts and equipment), future cost savings, improved safety and lower asset downtime. And when many of those assets are the voting public’s homes, schools, leisure facilities and work places, the importance of ensuring those Assets are safe is beyond measure and can be calculated in both political and economic terms.  

Data is key to maintaining assets proactively. The lifecycle of such critical infrastructure as high-rise buildings, bridges and roads can be maintained and lengthened by using the data provided by drones. The data provides information to decision makers, allowing greater oversight into decisions of maintenance, replacement or build from new, assisting in compliance with standards and risk mitigation.

The data can be provided in various formats to suit the needs:

•    Drones can allow views of multiple angles and close-up video of hard-to-reach assets that previously were difficult, dangerous or expensive to inspect. Advanced imaging cameras can zoom in to show the smallest details.
•    Thermal and LiDAR imaging provide data that the naked eye cannot.
•    3D models can be created from drone data and with this being a core component of BIM (Building Information Modelling), it is easy to see how invaluable drones are to repeat inspections.

For asset management to be proactive, regular inspections are necessary. Traditional methods involving scaffolding or cranes can be expensive and dangerous. Drones offer the solution: inspections that previously would have taken several people several days can frequently be done by just two people in a matter of hours. The time, money and energy saved only increases with each inspection. The data from each inspection builds a better picture, leading to greater knowledge of the asset, enabling better decisions to be made in calmer working atmospheres, rather than in stressed environments working against the clock to resolve a critical situation.

Yet while the Covid-19 pandemic could be seen by councils to be an excuse for cutbacks, reducing services, scaling back on maintenance and inspections to reduce costs, now is actually an excellent time for councils to invest in new technology. According to a recent Forbes article: new technology increases efficiency; lowers current workload; can assist with remote working challenges; technology differentiates; and technology positions for future growth.

Councils have large property portfolios, including housing, commercial properties, offices and recreational spaces. By using drones over traditional methods, one council has accelerated their inspection programme, minimised the health and safety risk of working at height and delivered multi-million pound savings.

Drones facilitate the ability to inspect projects from a socially appropriate distance, and with the appropriate software the results can be shared remotely too, ensuring the safety of all users and greater buy-in by all those involved in the projects.

Local government is not known for being early adopters of new innovative technology and currently only four per cent of local authorities have a policy and/or strategy to benefit from drone based services. However the energy of such a person is crucial in getting a project such as introducing drones into local government. They need to work at various levels with those who will be using the technology on a day-to-day basis and there are several areas that will need to be addressed. A recent study by ARPAS-UK member, Agilio Ltd, discovered that 36 per cent of councils had procured external drone services, 17 per cent of local authorities have a lead officer with responsibility for policy and strategy relating to the council’s use of drones and only six per cent of local authorities have been granted CAA Permission for Commercial Operations (PfCO). These are all areas that will need to be looked at.

For all these reasons, it’s important for future-looking local government to recognise that surviving today’s pandemic isn’t just about cutting budgets. It’s about making smart business decisions. Investing in technology now is a smart decision that not only positions local government to survive over the short term of the pandemic’s impact, but is also an investment that will drive accelerated, long-term asset management once the pandemic is over.

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