It’s All About the Data

A Visit to Take-Off Professionals

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Marco training a group of new UAV pilots.

We are in the dawn of a new era for industry. It has taken the foresight of some visionary folks and the better part of my life for the new age of measurement to arrive. Back in about 1992 an electronics engineer smilingly told me that his profession had a greater impact on land surveying than it did on electronics industry itself, and old Jim Shaw was right. What we didn’t realize was about that same time in Phoenix two different guys had a pow-wow that would also alter the course of geospatial measurement as we knew it.

I had the distinct honor of chatting with Marco Cecala of Take Off Professionals (TOPS) and Tom Pastuszak, General Manager of Technology Solutions, about their quarter century old visions and how they have shaped the threshold we are passing through today. On the other side of the portal stands the next relay with TOPS General Manager, Terry Dagen poised to grab the baton of technology and ready to sprint off into the future. TOPS is the fulfillment of Marco’s foresight and old school business ethic of complete customer service. Marco grew up in his family’s retail jewelry business and reminisced about sweeping the shop floor at the young age of five and developing his customer focused business ethics along the way. So how did he end up in a geospatial data profession?

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Marco inspects one of the small drones used by their clients to fly smaller sites.

Tom was running the local Spectra Physics dealership around 1991 and Marco was working with a civil construction firm that bought lasers and software from Tom. Tom became GM of Spectra Physics Laserplane Phoenix in 1996. Electronic measurement had emerged and digital design software was gaining a foothold with the co-current emergence of the personal computer. Data collection boxes were the interface between the available technologies but automation and integration was just a distant promise in those days of Compuserve, serial ports, and 1200 bps baud rates. While we were all enamored by a glorified calculator that would record topo shots and spit out radial staking data, Tom saw a much larger picture where man, measurement, and movin’ dirt were integrated by all of these emerging technologies. Then one day back in 1997, Marco entered Tom’s store to buy a level and the rest is history…

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Contour lines of a photogrammetry flight prior to removing vegetation.

What does TOPS do? They create digital models for machine control and earthmoving. Okay, what does TOPS really do? TOPS pulls all the data sources together and resolves a fully functional working model tailored to suit each individual client’s wants and needs. That’s a tall order in the era of fudge it or forget it fly-by-nights that Yelp files under design firms. In fact, TOPS has been successfully implementing digital models respectfully longer than the following virtual icons; Google-5 years (1998), Amazon-1 year (1994), Netflix-4 years (1997), and since I brought them up, Yelp-11 years (2004). Two recessions, a real estate crash, and a dot com bubble later, TOPS is still churning out custom fit digital models for clients big and small.

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Overlaying linework on a recent photogrammetry model helps stakeholders to better define timelines.

TOPS leverages the intelligence of automated technology in its own business model which has resulted in a seamless project user interface. Project partners appreciate the opportunity to electronically handoff their plan rolls, cad files, and work orders via the personalized web portal. That bottom line alone equates to man hours and daily fuel savings wasted in crosstown traffic jams. Connectivity is being harnessed by TOPS to incorporate their expertise as the complete solution of digital control throughout the life of the project. When the design slams head on into the walls of project reality, TOPS portal is accessible 24/7/365 to receive the dynamic work orders and plan modifications. With one hand on the gusher and one to hit the call button, a contractor can simply get TOPS on the “old blower” and hash out the fix. That my friends is the difference between building a crash course digital model and being a project solutions service provider.

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Marco Launches the Trimble UX5.

Project solutions provider sounds big and it is big. TOPS is providing solutions for the $916 million Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway around Phoenix. That is the largest single highway project in Arizona’s state history and one heck of a load count. There’s dirt, subgrade, finish grade, utility conflicts, drainage structures, pavement, signage, and a host of requisite unforeseen challenges that just seem to fester up in a huge project. TOPS is that value based service provider that is saving the taxpayer money through the efficient orchestration of data and quality control up front. When, not if, the conflicts show up, TOPS can get out in front of conflicts to flag the solution points for the design team and do it way before any iron burns a single drop of fuel or any person torches the project wage resources. It’s all about doing it right the first time or what the big bean counters might call economic efficiency. Incidentally a dollar to the small bean counter is worth as much as a dollar to the big bean counter so all of TOPS services are scalable up or down. Digitally speaking custom home sites, small pavement sections, and retail pad sites are the same basic creature as a twenty mile highway project. Marco uses the analogy of 3D printing on the ground. Whether it’s a matchbox car or a full size polymer self-guided tour bus the printing process is the same. The value of deliverables can be measured in bandwidth, or around the boardroom table, or even by a warm handshake on the future site of your dream home. In any event the client is reaping the benefit of cost savings, project efficiency, and time by leveraging the services provided by TOPS.

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Marco and Terry go over preflight inspection for a drone mission.

What sets TOPS apart as a leader in the industry? From what I’ve seen the TOPS corporate culture itself establishes their role as an industrial leader. The team’s project doctrine incorporates customer service as the foundation and customer satisfaction as a closing item on the project punch list. As cliche as it sounds the rest of the project just falls into place under that philosophy. A talented and resourceful staff adopts the client’s success under their personal ownership which naturally leverages a positive atmosphere of quality assurance. The TOPS modeling team has an impressive toolbox at their disposal. Marco summed it up like this “TOPS innovative data service will meet our clients needs regardless of the manufacturer or system type. Carlson, Leica, Topcon, Trimble, we have the resources to work with them all, no matter what software the engineers used for the design, be it Civil 3D, MicroStation or any other design software, we will provide the client with the final 3D model in the proper format required for your equipment.”

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Aerial topo results after a creek flood. Dense vegetation often times requires backfill with traditional survey topo shots.

The team sorts through the client’s data and runs a stringent quality control analysis against the plans. Identifying any loopholes, busts, and anomalies early in the game provides an upfront opportunity to mitigate costly tear outs, back charges, retrofits, and redesigns. Certain designs can clearly specify what a professional conceives to be a solution to a problem. However, such design may not adequately reflect a practical application toward building the solution. TOPS uses model integration as a dry run at how well the concept can be applied within the limitations of construction techniques and budgeted equipment. Furthermore, integrating various modeled surfaces with logical construction phasing meets golden rule of dirt work-only move it once- and that keeps everybody grinning. For example, analyzing the combined operations of sewer installation, road building, and lot drainage in a residential subdivision may reveal a cost savings by changing the order of events. Perhaps building a road and sewer first may offset a shortage in lot material by placing the road and sewer spoils across the house pads. Or conversely removing an excess of overlot material might require undue wear and tear on design roads causing rework if the roads were finished first. Providing a client with this type of preconstruction intelligence has a direct influence over the bottom line and is extremely valuable to a client.

LogoSo what’s on the horizon? Civil Integrated Management. CIM is commonly defined as the technology-enabled collection, organization, managed accessibility, and the use of accurate data and information throughout the life cycle of a transportation asset. The Federal Highway Administration and state DOT’s are embracing this concept as the highway sibling of BIM (Building Information Modeling). This is a wholesale technological leap from traditional paper records, manual measurement, and reactionary maintenance. As the sun sets on the first century of the automotive highway, we see a completely new era of comprehensive asset management emerging before our eyes. CIM is the fruition of the last few decades technologies pulled together by our connectivity with the cloud and implemented for the benefit of the public at large.

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Progress aerial topo surface for a large highway project.

We live in a time when just about everything could be digitally controlled to some extent. 3D modeling is of course the backbone of the automated construction project. Project owners and developers are realizing the benefits of the financial control that automation can provide throughout a project. The bottom line from the top brass is controlling project risk. Connectivity to the cloud is the latest accelerant to automation and provides real time opportunities to implement 3D modeling. The industry is becoming ever more dependant on strong models crafted people that are willing to professionally dedicate themselves to productivity and innovation. A quarter of a century of product development and process refinement has proven that automation is a profitable endeavor for the construction and design industries. Early innovators like Marco and Tom are the Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin of our industry and this visit with Takeoff Professionals is yet another refreshing example of the future emerging before us.

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Note: Photographs by Rebecca Wilks.

A PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine is available by clicking HERE

About the Author

Jason Foose, PS

Jason Foose originally hails from the Connecticut Western Reserve Township 3, range XIV West of Ellicott’s Line Surveyed in 1785 but now resides in Township 21 North, Range 17 West of the Gila & Salt River Base Line and Meridian. He is also the Managing Editor of the magazine.