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Reducing the roadworks

Cones, holes and temporary traffic lights the scourge of Britain's roads! But now scientists and industry have come together to reduce the misery of motorists caused by the repair, maintenance and upgrading of pipes and cables under the tarmac. They'll reveal how new technology will allow workers to virtually 'see' underground before they start digging.

A sector-wide seminar at The University of Nottingham on June 11th brings together these pioneering researchers, utilities companies and local authorities to reveal the results of a major project that aims to unclog Britain's traffic arteries.

For the past three years the VISTA project has been working to transform the technology for mapping the underground network of drains, water and gas pipes, as well as power and communications cables. Many of the older 'buried assets' date back to Victorian times, when accurate records of their location and depth were not recorded.

Every year 4 million holes are dug on Britain's streets to access the subterranean maze of 3.5 million kilometres of pipes and cables. Up to now, utility companies have needed to dig a series of 'test' holes to find the service they need to work on. This prolongs the road works and increases the risk of damaging other services beneath the road or pavement. The resulting delay to road users, disruption to business, environmental damage and safety costs add up to around 4 billion, in addition to the 1 billion direct cost to utilities companies and local councils.

The VISTA project draws to a close this year and is bringing together existing paper and digital records with the latest satellite and ground-based 'radar' positioning systems to create 3D maps of the buried utilities network. A virtual-reality style computer system is being developed which will allow workers onsite to 'see' underground. This could eventually be available on the web.

Scientists at The University of Nottingham have been working on developing satellite technology to improve satellite positioning accuracy and availability, especially in urban areas. Dr Gethin Roberts from the University's Institute of Engineering Surveying and Space Geodesy (IESSG) says: "Obviously, there is a concentration of underground utilities pipes and cables in built-up areas of cities, where GPS reliability can be problematic. The height of densely packed buildings can lead to so-called 'urban canyons' where there is no line of sight between satellites and the GPS receiver, which leads to a degradation of the signal."

The research team has looked at a number of ways of overcoming these issues, including:

  • The use of ground-based pseudo-satellites called LocataLites, working on a wifi frequency, and integrated with existing GPS and other Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS).
  • Simulating future satellite signals over the next five years when the full constellation of satellites from the GPS (US), GLONASS (Russian), COMPASS (Chinese) and Galileo (European) systems will be fully operational to predict the range of signal available.
  • Developing a new method of combining GNSS with INS (Inertial Navigation Systems) to augment satellite data in 'urban canyons'.
  • Combining ground penetrating radar (GPR) with GNSS to identify and position buried assets.
  • Developing augmented reality (AR) computer system, similar to virtual reality, which uses real coordinates and positions to allow workers out in the field to 'see' utilities underground.

As well as the 3D 'augmented reality' computer-mapping to help workers on the ground, researchers at The University of Leeds' School of Computing have been working to create a central database to make the records kept on the underground network easier to access and understand by all involved in utilities delivery. Professor Anthony Cohn says: "A single unified digital representation which is created directly from asset owner records, allows users in the field or the office to visualize all the information about a dig-site quickly and in a way independent of the particular asset owner; this reduces the possibility of misinterpretation, and the digital representation allows the end user to tailor the map to their particular purposes interactively."

The scientists have been collaborating with more than 20 industry partners including utility companies and suppliers and manufacturers of surveying and positioning technology. VISTA has been managed by UK Water Industry Research Ltd, which is responsible for procuring research required to satisfy the water industry's strategic business needs.

The 2.2 million project has been funded with just under 900,000 from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills's Technology Strategy Board and in-kind contributions from industry partners.

The VISTA project dovetails with a 1 million Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council-funded study called Mapping the Underworld that was led by the universities of Birmingham, Leeds, Oxford and Nottingham and is now into its second phase in which data from a multisensor device will be fused with the VISTA integrated maps to develop a "body scanner for the street".

It also works alongside the National Underground Assets Group (NUAG), a partnership of relevant stakeholders including utilities and local authorities, and its outcomes will assist in meeting the Traffic Management Act's requirements for utilities to produce and exchange digital asset location information.


Contact: Jo Parker
University of Nottingham

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