Google Earth is a wonderful thing. Open the app, type in the name of any location, the world will turn to that location and you can zoom in every closer, seamlessly transitioning at some point from a satellite image to a Google Street View image.
Google has created this tool by combining available satellite imagery with some very smart programming but most importantly by running camera-equipped cars – and where that is not possible bikes, people and even sledges — down just about every street in the world.
What if you could do the same for underground infrastructure? Of course you can’t see it and there is no one source of information on its nature and location – that is held by the myriad of owners, but it is a scenario being seriously canvassed, specifically in a white paper from global management consultancy KPMG: Smart infrastructure: mapping underground utilities.
It’s one of the fruits of a series of thought leadership workshops undertaken by KPMG in the UK to “consider how we could use new technologies in infrastructure development, maintenance and operation to improve our lives, reduce costs, and create economic growth.”
Drawing parallels with Google Street View, it says, “We’ll soon have the technology to generate, hold 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 video cameras down most of the roads throughout the developed world.”
It adds: “The potential financial benefits of mapping the subterranean systems beneath these thoroughfares are enormous.
Bringing different providers’ data together in a shared system, we could build a shared mapping tool that allows participants to view the entire lattice of interweaving networks.”
Despite the enormous technical and practical challenges of such a project KPMG does not see these as being the biggest hurdles, rather, it says: “The biggest challenges to this concept are not technological, but organisational – lying in the policy framework reforms that will be required to get stakeholders working together to their mutual benefit. … [and] in getting stakeholders on board: in creating a framework that fostered the necessary collaboration, producing advantages for all the key bodies involved in providing, maintaining and regulating our utilities.”
The white paper concludes: “Over hundreds of years, we’ve built a massive and intricate world of interwoven underground networks, [in the UK] comprising up to 300 separate systems; yet there are huge gaps in our data on what we’ve created. Now, the power of digital technologies to gather, store and share information presents a way for us to rediscover that knowledge – promising both huge savings in utility firms’ maintenance and repair budgets, and a big reduction in the economic harm caused by roadworks, accidental damage and network failures.”
It’s a grand vision, but KPMG stops short of taking a punt on when it might be realised, saying only:“Previous generations have bequeathed us a rambling, tumbledown mansion shot through with ageing pipework, hidden conduits and long-buried wiring. Thanks to the potential of smart infrastructure, we could soon be able to don our X-ray specs and consult a network diagram before getting stuck in with the DIY.”
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