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Susan Smith
Susan Smith
Susan Smith has worked as an editor and writer in the technology industry for over 16 years. As an editor she has been responsible for the launch of a number of technology trade publications, both in print and online. Currently, Susan is the Editor of GISCafe and AECCafe, as well as those sites’ … More »

Mapping the Underground

December 8th, 2016 by Susan Smith

Utilities strikes are costing utilities about a trillion dollars per year, which equates to a hit a minute in the U.S. Many of these are taking place in underground utilities.


Dr Nicole Metje, co-Investigator of Assessing the Underworld, leading Work Package Eight, Proving Trials and Specification of a National Mapping the Underworld Test Facility, spoke at the Bentley YII 2016 Conference in London in November this year on the topic of “Mapping the Underworld.”

Metje is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Civil Engineering at the University of Birmingham.

In the ‘70s, Metje, said, “Mapping the underworld” was the first project focused on sensing the project and detecting buried pipes and cables. “What if we put sensors on pipes to find them easier? We looked at GPS and absolute positioning, and also looked at academia.”

“We’re in a phase assessing the underworld,” said Metje. “While we scan for where it is, let’s see about its conditioning. There’s a lot in your geospatial. Utility networks are more sustainable, and we should value the space we’re using up, and use it more intelligently in the future.”

Getting common data on utility strikes is easy in the U.S. but not in the UK, said Metie. The common data required for such an analysis will include:

  • Type of service
  • Day and time
  • Location of work
  • Excavation tool
  • Severity of damage
  • Root cause

“Because I’m in academia they trust me and in the UK I can get the data, because they don’t think I’m going to share it with competitors,” said Metje.

Most utilities struck are telecoms and electricity. Those are quite shallow utilities in the UK. This is in contrast to the U.S. where gas comes up quite high and a lot of that is overhead and things are done differently.

When data comes from different companies, it doesn’t tell you if the situation is getting better or worse. “We need to add in the relationship to the day’s work,” said Metje. “Companies don’t have that data usually. It can be correlated with work done and how much man hours goes up.”

Most companies don’t know the indirect or social costs of utility strikes, which are getting an inspector in, you had to shut the site down, or had to close businesses around it that might need compensation.

You have active and passive tools, that are used in 40% of cases. A number of services would be active if the generator was used.

A lot of training and a lot of pressure onsite are needed. The lack of these is why errors happen, said Metje.

Costs of utility strikes are more than most people think.

  • Electricity
  • Gas
  • Telecom
  • Fibreoptic
  • Water

PAS128 is a specificiation done in conjunction with BSI. Protection of buried utilities started in 2014.

By validating MTU sensor technologies, underground truth could be determined. Five commercial companies conducted a utility survey to PAS128 standard. They did a survey in Birmingham and these are results:

  • Restrict area to convex hull of area, chart showed
  • If you have two ducts close to each other, does company say it’s one or two ducts?
  • If you have small ducts next to each other, that’s fine but you will know not to dig there.

PAS256 is a buried assets code of practice that is currently under development and expected to be completed by early 2017. Its aim is to make data sharing easier and more consistent. It includes minimum data recommended for sharing and optional data.

In summary,

  • Inaccurate, incomplete or insufficient knowledge of the location of buried assets can be costly. (economic and H&S)
  • Indirect and social costs contribute to the overall cost of utility strikes
  • PAS128 has provided a good specification for utility decisions.
  • PAS256 will be of the future.

Assessing the Underworld

Comments from the audience:

“People are using mobile phone to get a GPS fix and it’s not good enough,” said an attendee. “Leica technology is not available for every company. If you have a pipe, it depends on what data you collect. The top of the pipe, if you know what it is, who owns it, that’s prescriptive. By going to digital it is not necessarily prescriptive about the format.”

“In the UK, if the records come from utility owners, they say dig at your own risk. If it’s accurately on your plan, then you hit it, you can’t go back. When you get information with surveying companies it becomes more difficult. Surveyors would say dig at your own risk, they are changing this a bit, where the surveyor will take some responsibility. We don’t have subsurface engineers who will sign off on this. They’ve done the geophysical survey, and if they hit something that’s not on the record, they can go back to the company.”

“After 2012 number of strikes went down, but the work went up,” said Metje. “People have changed their practices so there was a lot more awareness. In 2010, the Utility Detection Mapping Forum was formed, and industry changed their awareness. It’s actually better than what the picture shows. A lot of contractors introduced safety procedures, monitored strikes, devices, survey industry change, and there was a lot of movement within the industry, and better records.”

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Categories: Bentley, Bentley Systems, Big Data, utilities, Year In Infrastructure 2016

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