Project Profile: GPS Goes Underground

Jan. 1, 2010
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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.

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,” says Rick Pevarski, president and chief executive officer 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 job site.”

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Damage and Challenges Abound
Damage to underground facilities has the potential to result in serious consequences to 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 US, 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 Virginia Utility Protection Service 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,” says 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% 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% 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,” says Pevarski. “The excavator can view an image that provides a bird’s-eye view of what was located with a much clearer picture of where those lines run from a big-picture perspective.

Pevarski goes 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 bird’s-eye view, it becomes much clearer. This data is shared with the utility, allowing them to verify their own maps and records.

Opening Lines of Communication
VUPS invited leading utility-locator manufacturers to participate in Phase II of the pilot project, and McLaughlin, based in Greenville, SC, 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 onto 45 Verifier G2 utility locators being used in the pilot project.

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,” says Matt Manning.