Tech Advances Are Transforming Geotechnical Engineering

Not long ago, one activity geotechnical engineers like me enjoyed the most was going into the field. Geotechnical engineering projects often began with a detailed site reconnaissance to investigate topography, drainage features, soil, and bedrock to establish and characterize site conditions and potential interactions with proposed improvements and construction. Today, the vast array of instruments and scanning techniques available have changed the industry approach to geotechnical engineering – all to the benefit of the overall design process and project execution.

Although site reconnaissance are still required to obtain a basic understanding of site conditions, rapidly changing technology has effected profound changes in the industry. Advanced computer applications such as satellite imagery and remote monitoring have increasingly supplemented—and in some cases, completely replaced – manual field measurements and observations.

As with most technological advances, this change has brought about significant benefits, including substantial cost savings, safer structures, and reduced risk. Through advances in microchip technology, geotechnical engineers now have the tools and technology at hand to gather detailed sub-surface information using geophysical techniques that detect both soil and rock composition, as well as groundwater, deep below ground level. Additionally, the hundreds of instruments now available to measure ground response, gauge environmental impacts, and monitor structural performance have positively impacted the safety and reliability of foundation designs, utility infrastructure, and structure integrity, while facilitating determination of safety, durability and fitness for use.

An example of these benefits can be seen in the efforts for the Anacostia River Tunnel in southwest Washington D.C. This project involves a proposed 2.4-mile system of deep, large-diameter underground storage tunnels and associated diversion and pumping facilities. Currently in construction, the project prominently features a vast array of geo sensors and instrumentation that will allow for real-time data acquisition, storage, and reporting, as well as greater insight into ground response, as construction proceeds. Inclinometers, borehole extensometers, tiltmeters, automated total stations and subsurface settlement instruments above and adjacent to the tunnel measure horizontal and vertical displacements to help EBA uncover any impact on existing structures and utilities along the alignment. The data generated by the instruments helps Contractors proactively address impacts and prevent future problems.

In short, geotechnical engineering has become very sophisticated over the last 20 years. This new level of sophistication has not only improved our understanding of geo-materials, but has enabled us to work smarter, faster, and with greater reliability than ever before to reduce the inevitable risk associated with geotechnical engineering. In addition, the new technologies have decreased manpower requirements, because the focus is now performing the required research, monitoring, and analysis with a computer in an office, rather than in the field.

As someone with more than 30 years of industry experience, I have a deep appreciation for the effectiveness and efficiency resulting from these technological advances, but I do miss the days of going out into the field and digging in the dirt. To discuss how EBA can put these tools to use for you, contact Nick Roles at 410.504.6116 or


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Nicholas Roles