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PDAs make diaries a thing of the past
High-Tech Hits the Highway

State Highway 130 (SH 130), a 49-mile, $1 billion roadway, is taking shape east of Austin with the help of computer technology.

For the first time, Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) workers are using handheld personal data assistants (PDAs) to enter data into a database, saving time, trouble and the costly possibility of losing a handwritten diary, according to Tim Weight, director of turnpike construction for TxDOT's Austin district.

"You lose one diary [like we had] in the old days and that could represent maybe six months of work," he said. "On 130, that's a lot of work. We couldn't take that chance. When you're doing $1.5 million to $2 million in construction a day, you have to get it right."

Bye-bye, Big Chief
Sixty to 70 PDAs go into the field every day for SH 130, said Weight. The PDAs allow TxDOT inspectors to make notes on the project, take and distribute photographs and carry on e-mail-like conversations, with all data recorded into the TxDOT database.

The units save TxDOT money since the agency doesn't need staff members to transcribe data and generate reports. But an even bigger issue to Weight is the reduced potential for losing data in the field.

"Normally, our inspectors had a diary that they carried with them, and they hand wrote their notes in the diary," he said. "That's fine until it falls in the ditch or burns up in a truck crash. We needed to come up with something a little different than the 'Big Chief tablet' and the pencil."

The PDAs cost $125 to $200 per unit, so if something happens to one of the units, it's not like running over a $3,000 laptop computer, Weight said, and the information is already in the TxDOT database.

Speed equals need
The technology is helping construction on the huge project move quickly, Weight said. An average job might involve moving 5 million yards of dirt. With SH 130, the agency will move almost 50 million yards by the time the project is complete in 2007.

That's a lot of dirt, Weight said, and a lot of testing and discussion among TxDOT inspectors, the job's contractor and an independent quality assurance firm (IQAF), which works on-site checking the work of the contractor as well.

"If we're doing $2 million a day in construction, we're probably generating 250 to 300 tests a day," he said. "Someone has to look at it and check it against the tests done by the contractor and by the IQAF and make sure they correlate to one another."

Austin-based HBMG Inc., a custom software development firm, created the software that blends the reports from different groups specifically for the SH 130 project, Weight said.

HBMG demonstrated the technology's speed by transferring about 1,300 documents to a project management team in about 40 seconds, much faster than delivering hard copies, according to Manuel Zarate, HBMG's founder.

Bridging the northwest
TxDOT's use of PDA technology is attracting notice around the country.

"We're certainly looking at the results of SH 130 and how PDAs are used there," said David Henderson, deputy program manager of construction for Oregon Bridge Delivery Partners (OBDP).

During summer 2005, OBDP rolled out a pilot program with its inspectors using PDAs to track daily progress as they replace or repair more than 300 bridges in Oregon.

"We wanted to reduce the amount of time inspectors had to write things down and also provide a faster reporting method of inspections so at the end of the day, we have real-time data that is uploaded into the database," Henderson said

OBPD would like to go completely wireless with data transfer eventually, Henderson said.

"We're looking at a next step, at a wireless phone technology, so that wherever we have a cell phone signal, we could sync up and upload the information from anywhere," he said. "We're not there yet, but I think it's not a matter of if, but when."

Clint Shields