This article was published first by The Pioneer, EPSRC’s flagship magazine (20th Anniversary special part 2)

EPSRC invested in a major multidisciplinary, multi-university project to prove the concept of technologies that could explore the underworld of buried pipes, cables and utilities beneath our feet in 2005. Since then a team of Birmingham civil engineers have played an important role in developing multi-sensor approaches to map underground utility systems as part of the ‘Mapping the Underworld’ project.

In the UK it is estimated that up to four million holes are cut into the UK road network each year to install or repair buried infrastructure. Failure to identify accurately the location of existing buried assets results in numerous practical problems, costs and dangers for utility owners, contractors and road users.

The Mapping the Underworld (MTU) project, which arose from a seminal EPSRC Sandpit exercise, focused on developing the means to locate, map in 3D and record the position of all buried utility assets without excavation. This would be achieved through the development of a single shared multi-sensor platform.

To meet the challenge, the team developed vibro-acoustics, low frequency electromagnetic fields, passive magnetic fields and ground penetrating radar technologies, combined with intelligent use of existing utility company records and ground databases. The project, led by Professor Chris Rogers, aimed to integrate the sensor and record information in a single, integrated, searchable database.

The research led to the establishment of an industry-sponsored, co-created MTU Centre of Excellence, which opened up for the first time the possibility of a national certification scheme – something the industry had wished to see for some time. In 2010, the Mapping the Underworld project spawned a major archaeology project to help scientists discover unknown historical treasures hidden beneath the UK landscape.

The three-year £815,000 initiative was co-funded by EPSRC and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) under the Science and Heritage programme.

In 2011, Oxems, a company created to commercialise research arising from the MTU project, developed a unique low cost, low maintenance ‘asset tag’, which can be attached to exposed assets such as water pipes, sewers and cabling and detected when reburied by an ‘intelligent’ sensor device on the surface without the need for excavation.

Oxems believes the technology could reduce the costs to utilities of streetworks by at least 40 per cent, and prompted John Divit, Leakage Best Practice Adviser at Severn Trent Water, to comment: “The Oxems product could have an impact as significant as barcodes.”

In 2012, EPSRC invested £6.3 million in a multidisciplinary, multi-university research project led by Professor Chris Rogers focused on transforming the engineering of cities to deliver a low-carbon, resourcesecure sustainable future.

The wide-ranging project draws on the social sciences and takes into account factors such as quality of life, social aspirations and engineering policy. Co-investigators on this project include University College London’s Professor Hélène Joffe and Professor Nick Tyler, also from UCL.

In 2013, EPSRC invested £5.8 million in the next phase of the Mapping the Underworld initiative, Assessing the Underworld (ATU), which broadens the skill base of the MTU team by introducing leaders in climate change, engineering sustainability, robotics and pipeline systems.

A main aim of the four-year project is to prove the concept of a single integrated assessment and modelling framework.

The programme has more than 50 project partners and has attracted over £16 million of in-kind support. The programme’s intention is to realise a 25-year vision for sustainable streetworks. Also in 2013, Dr Nicole Metje, who coleads Assessing the Underworld, was awarded £241,000 by EPSRC as part of an Innovate UK-funded project to develop an inexpensive sensor-based pipeline leak detection system, which can be fitted to new water pipelines or retrofitted opportunistically during repairs or using keyhole excavation technology.

The project, which is a collaboration with water companies and other industry stakeholders, aims to develop a commercial system that harnesses the technology. Chris Rogers says:

This sequence of funding has underpinned radical thinking on how cities should be supported in the far future and how existing infrastructure systems, some of which date back to the 1800s, can be integrated into the brave new world of smart and smarter cities.

In 2014, EPSRC invested in a Quantum Technology (QT) Hub at the University of Birmingham. Dr Nicole Metje, a co-investigator at the hub, is now looking to explore the use of QT sensors for pipeline detection, working alongside the MTU sensors.

Findings from the MTU and ATU research, suggest that ‘traditional’ geophysics technologies alone might not be sufficient to see through the ground and find the full extent of everything buried below the surface (pipes, cables, mine shafts, for example) and since engaging with physicists on the Gravity Gradient Technology Opportunity programme (GG-TOP) research project, quantum technology sensors have shown potential in this area. Nicole said:

The QT Hub is offering the opportunity to assess the potential to apply very sensitive quantum technologies, which are not normally used in civil engineering, to enhance the array of sensing technologies available for geophysical surveyors thereby coming closer to detecting everything buried in the ground without the need for probing excavations.

As part of the QT Hub, Nicole is leading one work package, which will look at applications for quantum technology sensors for civil engineering and geophysics with an initial focus on gravity gradient sensors. Her work will develop an operational framework for the sensors taking cognisance of existing geophysical sensors such as Ground Penetrating Radar. Nicole will engage with end users of the technology, who supported the QT-Hub application ensuring that the technology moves from the laboratory to real applications.

The QT sensors have the potential to locate and identify buried pipelines, mine shafts, sinkholes and mineral resources in challenging conditions where traditional geophysical sensors would not work. This, together with the array of sensors co-located on the Mapping the Underworld mobile laboratory has the potential to make street works more sustainable by providing an accurate picture of the shallow sub-surface, ultimately reducing road user delays and benefitting us all.