Mapping system in the pipeline

Traffic delays caused by roadworks could be reduced in the future as a result of a £1m scheme to create a detailed map of the UK’s buried infrastructure.

The EPSRC’s ‘Mapping the Underworld’ project will fund work across a number of universities until 2008, and will also investigate pipe location and tagging technologies.

During the past 150 years, pipes carrying water, sewage and gas have been installed under ground, along with electricity and phone cable networks. The oldest will soon need replacing, and demand for new infrastructure is increasing.

Pipes and cables are generally placed under roads becausecompanies do not have to seek permission from homeowners to access them. Up to four million holes are dug in the UK’s roads each year.

To minimise disruption, trenchless repair and installation has been developed. Scaled down tunnelling and directional drilling techniques are used to access pipes from the side of the road. Areas can besurveyed using techniques such as ground probing radar and electromagnetics, but this does not provide a complete picture.

A Birmingham University team headed by Prof. Chris Rogers, is working to develop a multi-sensor location tool to identify pipes and cables. The team is also creating a device that can be attached to infrastructure to provide information about the pipe and its condition during interrogation from either the surface or an internal probe.

‘If we can accurately locate buried infrastructure we can avoid digging unnecessary holes in the road and reduce congestion as well as saving the utilities funds, which may benefit their customers,’ said Rogers.

‘The problem is that we don’t know exactly where all the pipes and cables are. We need a method for seeing through the ground, but this is not easy and requires a series of technologies. If we can identify exactly what is beneath it, such as the type of pipe used, that would be even better.’

Once the contents of an area are identified, the group will use this to create a 3D map.

Under the tagging system, markers resembling supermarket barcodes would be able to give engineers above ground information on the pipe and its contents using a reader.

A team at Oxford University will also investigate a system of resonant labels — metallic structures that will be placed in new pipes to reflect electromagnetic signals and produce clearer alerts for engineers during the scanning process.

And at Nottingham University, a team will research refining pipe and cable location using GPS and Galileo technologies.