Mapping the Underworld

Adventure stories often feature the discovery of a yellowed, dog-eared map pinpointing, with a tantalising X, the location of long ago-buried treasure – and the subsequent frustrating hunt to find the cache amid a landscape that has changed considerably in the intervening years.

Such popular tales have a direct parallel with today’s utility pipes and cables that lie buried beneath our streets. Many are than 100 years old, as too are the records – maps, sketches, descriptions – of their exact whereabouts. Over the past century, our urban landscape has changed drastically, which can make locating pipes and cables a laborious, costly, disruptive and even dangerous task.

‘Slightly disturbingly, the analogy of a treasure seeker with a map and a spade is not so very far removed from today’s street workers equipped with utility records and a mechanical excavator,’ observes Birmingham’s Chris Rogers, Professor of Geotechnical Engineering and lead investigator of the most ambitious and  potentially transformative project of its type, called Mapping the Underworld (MTU).

What is MTU?

It is a multi-million pound, groundbreaking research programme with the aim of finding ways to pinpoint accurately and quickly the location of buried infrastructure without the need to dig holes and trenches – a kind of Time Team for the streets. So groundbreaking research to avoid breaking the ground.

The multi-disciplinary team has developed the means to locate, map in 3-D and record – using a single shared multi-sensor platform – the position of all types of buried pipes and cables, without having to resort to excavation.

How does it work?

Through combining a range of technologies – ground penetrating radar, acoustics and both active low-frequency and passive electromagnetic fields – and intelligent data fusion, it is possible to optimise pipe and cable detection and location.

Who is involved?

The University of Birmingham joined with other leading UK universities – Bath, Sheffield, Southampton and Leeds – and the British Geological Survey for the 10-year  programme of research, largely funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

What are the benefits?

Being able to map the vast network of buried utility pipes and cables without digging holes in the ground is more accurate, faster, less disruptive, safer and more cost-effective.

What’s next?

With the MTU research due to be completed soon, Chris and his team, with the addition of the University of Newcastle, are embarking on the next phase of their 25-year vision – an equally innovative project called Assessing the Underworld (ATU). 

This uses the same multi-sensor, non-invasive approach to assess the condition of the buried infrastructure, as well as the ground in which it is buried and the roads that overlie it. The aim is for utility surveyors to be able to detect, for instance, if a pipe has corroded or if it has water slowly seeping from it – again without having to dig down to unearth the pipe. It will also allow engineers and builders to predict how the ground, in its present, possibly altered (wetted, weakened) condition will react if a trench is dug at a particular point in a particular road.

In March 2013, the ATU team won a £5.9m grant from the EPSRC and an additional £17m in kind from key national and international players in utilities, construction, sensing and mapping. ATU will follow on seamlessly from MTU and will continue to engage with its national and international band of followers.