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Underground mapping will make cities smarter

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David Jenkins

Not all cities can be like the new Indonesian capital of Nusantara or Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Neom smart city project, both of them greenfield projects built from scratch and underpinned by the latest digital infrastructure.

Most of the world’s cities have histories going back centuries, and that means that underneath what is there today lies not just the foundations of former buildings from previous times but old legacy infrastructure networks.

Many of these networks are still in use, presenting huge challenges to city operations. A network of pipes or communications wiring might be decades old and virtually obsolete, and yet it is still essential to daily life.

KPMG’s UK based Richard Threlfall, who was a keynote speaker at IPWEA’s 2023 congress, recently used the analogy of an old house.

Anyone who has ever bought a house, said Threlfall, will know that the walls and floors can hide nasty secrets, from asbestos to old gas conduits. Drill into the wall to fit a new picture hook and you might punch through a water pipe.

Cities are similar in that ever since Victorian times we have been burying pipes and cables underground.

In many cases the ownership of these assets has changed hands and result is that very few utility and infrastructure organisations have a detailed picture of what is there.

Too often utility companies will just cross their fingers as they start drilling, hoping that they can locate their own network and not accidentally stumble across something put in place by another provider.

In the UK, for example, around one in 65 holes which are dug result in an accidental asset strike which causes around GBP2.4 billion pounds in economic cost, in addition to putting workers’ lives and health at risk.

All of this underlined the critical importance of underground mapping, and there are projects currently underway which are addressing this issue.

The UK response has been the National Underground Asset Register, which is expected to deliver at least GBP350 million per year in improved economic benefits through improved efficiency and fewer asset strikes.

In Australia, the Before You Dig organisation has been on a push for several years to aggregate as much information as it can on underground networks, and make this freely available to anyone who is about to dig a hole and build.

In the New Zealand capital of Wellington, local government planners have embarked on a project to digitise and map the city’s underground assets on a central database.

The city council is implementing a program called the Wellington Underground Asset Map (WUAM), which will ultimately digitise information on water assets, telecommunication cables, gas pipes and other services.

The move is a project to better manage the labyrinth of underground pipes and cables which are at the core of the city’s infrastructure.

The WUAM vision is for a federated data sharing platform showing subsurface infrastructure owned by the council and other utility operators.

Data will flow into this platform and all stakeholders in the sector can have 24/7 access to a federated asset register or subsurface digital twin.

Without question, this is the way forward for all cities. The goal is for detailed maps of utility networks to be widely accessible, and ultimately sensing technology will be able to provide information on the state of the networks so that preventative and predictive maintenance can be done.

It is not too far away to contemplate, but it is likely that cities will also be able to deploy robots to inspect and even repair these networks, acting from information collected and analysed from the sensors.

Technology is likely to be less of an impediment than stakeholder engagement and collaboration, so it is incumbent on utility organisations and the various tiers of government to see the bigger picture and collaborate closely.

This will be costly up front, but the longer term benefits from efficiency and reducing downtimes will provide the return on investment over time.

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