Smart infrastructure: mapping underground utilities

March 16th, 2018, Published in Articles: PositionIT

Beneath roads lie complex networks of cables and pipes, but often the owners of these systems don’t know their precise nature or location. Emerging digital technologies could enable the creation of real-time 3D maps of buried utilities – reducing inefficiencies, costs and risks.

In recent years, sectors such as communications and the media have been transformed by digital technologies; now infrastructure is in the foothills of its own technological revolution. And with that revolution comes a transformation in how infrastructure serves us, becoming more agile, responsive and smarter.

By gathering, analysing and sharing new forms of data, it is possible to improve and adapt decision-making in real-time. Embracing the application of new technologies such as driverless cars, smart electricity grids and adaptable buildings can increase efficiency and realise new opportunities. Building new data management systems and more flexible assets can improve collaboration and responsiveness – providing benefits for customers, managers and public agencies alike.

To help envision and promote that future, KPMG have conducted a series of workshops to consider how to use new technologies in infrastructure development, maintenance and operation to improve lives, reduce costs, and create economic growth.

Only a handful of rules were imposed during these workshops: All of the ideas had to be built around existing and emerging technologies, and scenarios were set just a few years in the future. They had to have clear benefits for investors and managers, as well as customers and public policy goals. And they had to be realistic and deliverable, addressing the potential concerns and challenges around matters such as privacy, security and governance.

The firm wanted to bring new thinking to solve old problems, outlining practical steps towards building truly smart infrastructure.

Mapping underground utilities

Given the right policies and collaborative working, existing technologies could enable us to create a real-time 3D picture of buried utilities.

As anyone who’s ever bought an old house knows, a building’s walls and floors can hide some nasty secrets. Remove plasterwork to replace the wiring, and asbestos may be revealed; take out a wall, and risk uncovering an ancient gas conduit; drill to hang a picture hook, and you might just strike a water pipe. Generations of workmen have come and gone, each of them adding or moving services.

Fig. 1: Mapping underground utility networks can reduce disruptions to roads and services for consumers.

Fig. 1: Mapping underground utility networks can reduce disruptions to roads and services.

The same is true, on a vast scale, of city streets. Since Victorian times, utility firms and infrastructure providers have been burying pipes and cables beneath our roads, creating intricate and complex networks to distribute services and collect waste water. Over the centuries, almost all these organisations have folded or been sold, merged, nationalised, privatised or restructured, leaving asset records that are often incomplete and outdated.

Consequently, few utility and infrastructure organisations have an accurate, detailed picture of their distribution networks. To locate a particular conduit or junction they must pull together whatever records they can find, carry out preliminary explorations using magnetic or electronic sensors, then cross their fingers and start digging. And with no universal system for sharing data between the different utilities firms, they’re just as likely to stumble across another provider’s network as to locate their own.

The cost of inaction

The result is huge inefficiency, disruption and risk. Every project demands trawling through the archive, new mapping exercises, exploratory excavation, and the risk of hitting someone else’s network – creating additional costs and delays as they are moved or repaired. And with few systems to coordinate utility providers’ work within the same geographic area, locations can be repeatedly excavated by a procession of different organisations. With providers digging some four million holes per year across the UK, the costs and economic damage caused by street asset works have been estimated at £5,5-bn per year [1, 2].

The system is made even more inefficient by its reactive nature. With such patchy records of their underground assets, utility providers cannot predict when a conduit is likely to fail. And even when they do think it worth carrying out checks or preventive maintenance on parts of their network, they are often deterred by the protracted and challenging process of getting permission for non-emergency roadworks. The result is that most utilities only respond once a pipe has burst or a cable snapped, creating additional risk, damage and disruption in the form of a flood, power cut or gas leak.

Mapping a way forward

Emerging digital technologies promise to do away with much of this extra work, wasted money and unnecessary disruption. Within a few years, infrastructure providers could create and share a detailed map of underground utilities of the vast majority of streets, and in time shift towards a preventive maintenance model using management information and live data feeds to head off failures before they occur.

Just a few years ago, we could not have mapped the complex, 3D groundscapes beneath roads and pavements, but the development of advanced sensors, rapid progress in robotics, and the reduced cost of data storage have created new possibilities.

Fig. 2: Knowing the location of underground utilities can lower the risk of accidental damage.

Fig. 2: Knowing the location of underground utilities can lower the risk of accidental damage.

Many technology businesses are developing detection systems that can locate and identify buried utilities to a high level of accuracy, and data hubs that would allow each utility owner to update and add details of their own assets [3]. Underground electricity cabling is relatively easily identified using sensors that pick up electrical fields. Meanwhile, engineering and artificial intelligence (AI) firms are producing robots capable of exploring and inspecting water and gas pipes [4]. Increasingly, these are able to use motion sensors, cameras and ground-penetrating systems to generate detailed plans of underground conduits.

Delivering a solution

Technology will soon be able to generate, store and update a comprehensive map of the UK’s underground utilities. The costs would of course be substantial. But Google has found it cost-effective to drive, push, carry, cycle and sledge mapping systems down most of the roads throughout the developed world [5] to create Google Streetview, and the potential financial benefits of mapping the subterranean systems beneath these thoroughfares are enormous. Bringing different providers’ data together in a shared system could create a shared mapping tool that allows participants to view the entire lattice of interweaving networks.

The biggest challenges, as so often, is not in the practicalities of getting the job done, but in getting stakeholders on-board in creating a framework that fosters the necessary collaboration to produce advantages for all the key bodies involved in providing, maintaining and regulating utilities. The benefits are obvious: reduced operation costs and lower risk of accidental damage for providers, and reduced disruption to roads and services for consumers. But many utilities providers would be reluctant to share data and to integrate their systems with a central database, and vested interests, competition, security and confidentiality present hurdles that demand a strong push from central coordinators.

Realising the full benefits of these technologies will also require reform in the process of approving non-emergency roadworks – streamlining the system, and integrating it with the shared-access mapping tool to coordinate planned excavations. Much has already been done to drive change, notably through the Highways Authority and Utilities Committee and StreetWorks UK (formerly NJUG), but further reform would be required to remove bureaucratic barriers and support true collaboration between utility providers [6, 7].

If these barriers could be overcome though, a shared 3D map, hosted on a secure online platform, and perhaps viewed using virtual reality technologies, would provide the basis for a wholesale move to preventive maintenance. Planned excavations could be displayed on the system, enabling other providers with assets at the location to request a simultaneous inspection of their own conduits, sending their own staff to the excavation site and so avoid the delays that occur when one provider needs another’s assistance to access their networks – or to take the opportunity to upgrade and modernise their local network.

Fig. 3: A shared-access mapping tool to coordinate planned excavations.

Fig. 3: A shared-access mapping tool can coordinate planned excavations.

Giving service providers details of others’ underground networks would reduce the incidence of accidental damage during exploratory excavation, minimising repair costs, service outages and road closures. And all the information on conduit routes and network conditions gathered during excavations could be fed into the system, steadily improving its richness and accuracy.

Long-term goals

In the long-term, emerging smart infrastructure technologies are likely to further strengthen predictive maintenance. Newly-installed conduits could contain sensors able to detect wear, strain and emerging fractures or leaks, sending data to utility owners via links to surface transponders using 5G or broadband networks. And information on predicted asset lifespans could be fed into a mapping platform, providing alerts as systems approach their scheduled maintenance periods.

Giving other relevant bodies access to the online platform could further streamline the process. Local authorities and transport managers, for example, would have much better information on the likely duration and extent of underground works, improving their traffic management and public information campaigns. Revealing which services might need to be moved to provide access to pipes and cabling, the system would permit planners to give public services, businesses and domestic consumers more notice of possible outages. And with service providers updating the platform in real-time, emergency services would be informed much sooner about roadworks which are planned, initiated and completed.

Over hundreds of years, we have built massive, intricate and interwoven underground networks comprising up to 300 separate systems. Yet, there are large gaps in our data on what we have created. Now, the power of digital technologies to gather, store and share information presents a way to rediscover this, promising savings in utilities’ maintenance and repair budgets, and a reduction in the economic harm caused by roadworks, accidental damage and network failures. Indeed, the biggest challenges to this concept are not technological, but organisational, resting in the policy framework reforms that will be required to get stakeholders working together for their mutual benefit.

Acknowledgement

This KMPG report, titled “Smart infrastructure: mapping underground utilities”, was first published in January 2018 and is republished here with permission. Learn more at www.kpmg.com/uk/smartinfrastructure.

References

[1] Beck, R., Fu, G., Cohn, A., Bennett, B. and Stell, J. (2007) A framework for utility data integration in the UK, in Coors, M., Rumor, M., Fendel, E. and Zlatanova, S. (eds) Urban Data Management Society Symposium, (Stuttgart, Germany, October 2007).
[2] N. Metje, B. Ahmad, and S. Crossland. (2015) “Causes, impacts and costs of strikes on buried utility assets”, Institution of Civil Engineers, Municipal Engineer, 168, 3: 165-174.
[3] “Competition winners pitch tech innovations to map London’s utilities underground”, Smart London Innovation Networks, 22 June 2016. Available online at: http://smarterlondon.co.uk/news/competition-winners-pitch-tech-innovations-to-map-londons-utilities-underground/.
[4] “Robot will check underground pipes”. Available online at: http://www.imeche.org/news/news-article/robot-will-check-underground-pipes.
[5] “Google Street View – Where We’ve Been & Where We’re Headed Next”, Google Street View. Available online at: https://www.google.co.uk/streetview/understand/.
[6] “Highway Authorities and Utilities Committee”. Available online at: http://www.hauc-uk.org.uk/.
[7] Street Works UK: http://streetworks.org.uk/.
[8] Mayor of London (2013) Smart London Plan: Using the creative power of new technologies to serve London and improve Londoners’ lives, Smart London Board: London. And GLA (2014) GLA Networked Utilities: Summary of Stakeholder Workshop, Arup: London.

Contact Richard Threlfall, KPMG, richard.threlfall@kpmg.co.uk