Mapping underground infrastructure: one dig at a time

PEL646 Mapping underground infrastructure

A rather gloomy statistic is that, on average, every minute of every day somebody, somewhere in the US digging up the ground strikes an underground pipe or cable.

Some of these incidents are the result of people not calling their local One Call service — the US equivalent of Australia’s Dial Before You Dig service — but an awful lot result from inaccurate information about the location of the buried infrastructure.

City Digital — a Chicago-based consortium focused on data-driven urban innovation — and partners Accenture and HBK Engineering aim to fix this problem, initially within Chicago, by creating an accurate map of all the buried infrastructure.

That might seem like a nigh on impossible task but working with the City hopes to create an accurate and comprehensive map of its entire buried infrastructure. It aims to do this by combining the information it already has with observations taken every time some buried infrastructure is exposed.

To capture this information the partners have developed scanning tools, a data capture system and mobile apps for use by construction workers that enable the workers to easily capture and input data about cables and pipes they expose in the course of their work.

City Digital is a collaboration within UI Labs, an organisation that bills itself as “a first-of-its-kind innovation accelerator, addressing problems too big for any one organisation to solve on its own.”

According to a UI Labs press release, using the City of Chicago as a test bed, City Digital is deploying the new technology “to create an accurate 3D map of underground assets, such as water pipes, fibre optic lines, gas pipes, electrical lines, and legacy infrastructure located in city streets and alleys.”

An engineering-grade, cloud-based data platform enables this critical infrastructure information to be securely stored and shared between the City of Chicago and utilities.

UI Labs says the technology and processes were developed by a broad consortium of government, industry, and academic partners at City Digital that include, amongst others, Microsoft, Esri, and the University of Illinois.

At first blush it might appear that it would lake a long time to acquire sufficient data by this method.

However, David Leopold, City Digital’s Director of Project Management, says there are more than 100,000 excavations every year in Chicago’s streets.

He’s quoted in one report of the project saying: “Just one site won’t give us much. But many of them, taken together and combined with other forms of data, such as existing GIS data in CAD or other industry formats, can help us create a virtual map of the underground.… Through mapping thousands of similar data images and points across multiple data sources, a clearer picture of the underground’s pipes, cables, water mains, and other key infrastructure emerges.”

Although the system is still in its infancy, it is reported to be already attracting interest from overseas. “On September 16, newly-elected London Mayor Sadiq Khan toured UI Labs’ Chicago facilities with a keen eye on the project,” said the report.

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