GPS Technology is Enhancing Underground Utility Locating

Communication in the underground locating business is vital to providing accurate and timely information between one-call centers, utilities, locators and excavators.

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Virginia Pilot Project Aims to Enhance Data Sharing and Stakeholder Communication

By Greg Ehm

Communication in the underground locating business is vital to providing accurate and timely information between one-call centers, utilities, locators and excavators. However, often even the best lines of communication can break down–whether it's transferring data or just communications between the different stakeholders.

Virginia Utility Protection Service Inc. (VUPS), located in Roanoke, Va., is a one-call notification center for the state of Virginia. The center notifies utilities of upcoming excavation work so they can locate and mark the underground facilities in advance to prevent possible damage to underground utility lines–in turn, preventing injury, property damage and service outages.

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VUPS is implementing an extensive program to enhance two-way communication and data sharing between underground utility stakeholders.

"We've developed a three-phase program to expand our basic services beyond just mapping, determining the area of excavation and distributing notifications," said Rick Pevarski, president and CEO, of VUPS. "The new program will reduce the number of over-notifications, provide enhanced data to excavator and facility owners, and ultimately provide two-way, real-time communication between the one-call center and the excavator at the jobsite."

Damage and Challenges Abound

Damage to underground facilities has the potential to result in serious consequences to both public safety and the environment, and the cost can reach into the millions of dollars. The impact on energy pipelines alone over a 10-year period ending in 2006 has been dramatic. During the 10-year period, more than 680 incidents were reported where pipelines were damaged by excavation–resulting in more than $259 million in property damage.

Another challenge is over-notification within the industry, which has a significant impact on stakeholder resources and the efficacy of the one-call process. In fact, an estimated 150 million notification tickets are issued annually in the U.S., and vague and incorrect excavation site descriptions on locate requests submitted to the one-call center only exasperate the problem.

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Phase I of the VUPS project was primarily designed to reduce the rate of over-notification by improving the quality and accuracy of locate notification tickets. The project targeted Fairfax County in northern Virginia as the test area and incorporated global positioning system (GPS) coordinates in facility locate requests submitted by excavators.

"We set out to develop a process to electronic white-line," said Pevarski. "Working with outside vendors, we developed an application that runs on a pocket PC using a Microsoft Mobile web application. So, as an excavator, you can take a PDA file, walk your area of excavation and be able to view it on our ortho-photography. Basically, the software allows you to complete the ticket in the field."

The project, completed in late 2007, resulted in an 8 percent reduction in the number of tickets issued per locate request in Fairfax County. Based on a total of 7.8 million tickets issued throughout the state of Virginia annually at an estimated average locate cost of $10 per ticket, the 8 percent reduction could conservatively result in a net savings of $6,271,200 across Virginia in locate costs alone.

With this information in hand, VUPS began implementing Phase II of the project in 2007. Phase II involves the integration and application of GPS technology to locating instruments and the development of electronic manifests tracking the locator's activity. Specifically, utility markings will be overlaid onto the ortho-photographic maps to provide a bird's-eye view of the excavation site. This enhancement will improve the detail currently seen in manually created manifest records.

"Utility operators can use the data from Phase II as a verification of their own maps and records," said Pevarski. "The excavator can view an image that provides a birds-eye view of what was located with a much clearer picture of where those lines run from a big-picture perspective."

Pevarski went on to say that many times excavators arrive at a site and see paint and flags all over, making it difficult to decipher. But, when they can see an aerial or birds-eye view, it becomes much clearer. This data is shared with the utility, allowing it to verify its own maps and records.

Software Opens Lines of Communication

VUPS invited leading utility locator manufacturers to participate in Phase II of the pilot project and McLaughlin, based in Greenville, S.C., stepped up to the plate. Specifically, McLaughlin developed software applications that allowed its Verifier G2 utility locator to share real-time data with an integrated Magellan GPS unit installed on 45 Verifier G2 utility locators being used in the pilot project.

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Two software applications are loaded into the locating receiver. These programs allow the receiver, through a serial port, to export real time depth, current measurement index (CMI), frequency and locator mode to the integrated GPS unit. A second software program allows the Windows-based GPS units to receive the locator data. When the GPS unit receives that data, it cues the Magellan unit to record the latitude and longitude coordinates for the specific underground facility.

"The entire process is done automatically," said Matt Manning, locating equipment product manager for McLaughlin. "Magellan GPS units are mounted to the utility locator and it's a one-hand operation. In other words, once you have the GPS unit set up, you basically are controlling all the locating and GPS recording with the push of one button on the utility receiver."

The process is quite simple. A customer calls in a locate request and the one-call center generates a ticket for a specific address or location. The location may have anywhere from one to multiple utilities to be notified. Then the utility locator arrives and locates the underground facilities on that ticket, sending the data in real time and capturing the latitude and longitude for mapping capabilities.

A number of applications exist that have been capable of capturing data from a single point with a time stamp–basically verifying the locator was at that location at a specific time.

"Other applications coupling the GPS unit to a locator existed, but they worked independent of each other," said Pevarski. "What we've accomplished is an application that completely integrates and couples the GPS unit directly to the locator. The McLaughlin applications allow the locator operator to push the depth button and, in one step, collect the depth, longitude and latitude location of that utility."

A number of facility owners have already mapped, through GPS, their surface features and attributes. The facility owners now have a simple software application that will allow them to easily map their underground facilities. Facility owners can download the raw data into a geographic information system (GIS) and use it to update or create their internal maps and overlay the information onto aerial photos–along with the other surface facilities that they've mapped.

Tracking Excavator Movements

Pevarski and his team are taking the technology one step further, as Phase III of the pilot project will involve the integration of GPS and mapping technology on excavation equipment.

"We envision excavation equipment equipped with a two-way GPS monitoring system that would monitor the location of the equipment in relation to the underground utilities," said Pevarski. "Should the equipment come close to a nearby underground utility, an avoidance alarm system would notify the equipment operator."

VUPS is working with the Gas Technology Institute (GTI) to develop the applications for Phase III of the pilot project.

"Everything we've done here in regard to applications–even though it may be specific to our software provider–has all been designed to be fairly generic," said Pevarski. "If utilities see value in having this data and applications, then they need to continue to take a leadership position and drive this movement.

"Utilities are the biggest excavators," said Pevarski. "So the use of these technologies needs to be utility-driven, whether it's having their own excavating team or requiring excavator contractors to use these new technologies. It benefits everybody in the long run."

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