Accidental strikes on underground pipes and cables cost the UK an estimated £1.2 billion per year. The economic cost of these utility strikes, as well as the huge health and safety concern, has been one of the primary drivers in the development of a National Underground Asset Register (NUAR).
Comprised of a digital platform that integrates data from a wide network of utility providers on the location of their underground assets, a NUAR would transform the way underground repairs and maintenance take place in the UK.
Currently, for each excavation project, organisations have to source information on buried utility assets from multiple asset owners. The information is returned in a variety of documents and can contain different formats and scales. It is not uncommon to see excavators stood at the side of a road, having to align different PDF maps by eye in order to avoid drilling into a cable or pipeline. This can increase the risk of asset strikes, resulting in project delays, disruption to the public and to the local economy
Latest estimates indicate around four million holes are dug each year by utility companies with many more dug as part of construction projects. Much of these are exploratory excavations to establish what is underground. The Department for Transport believes street works impact the economy by £4.3bn each year.
The Geospatial Commission, established in 2018 by the UK Government, is planning a National Underground Asset Register (NUAR), to map the UK’s gas, electricity, water, and telecommunication networks together with relevant data held by government. These services, often invisible to the public, are essential to the health of the UK economy and society.
However, the UK’s underground assets are in many areas historic and complex, having grown organically over many decades. Consequently, many of the organisations that own and operate the physical infrastructure are often unable to share accurate information about its precise location in an efficient way. Further, private companies may be reluctant to hand over this information to other organisations due to their commercial sensitivity or data security implications.
The stakeholders involved in the UK’s underground network have been calling for a neutral, interoperable platform from a trusted source on which to share their data safely and securely, and have the ability to report more accurate locational information about physical assets in the network. Two pilot projects have been funded by the Geospatial Commission in the past year, conducted by Ordnance Survey (in the North-East of England), and Greater London Authority (in London), to understand the feasibility and value of a NUAR for this purpose.
Ordnance Survey, as part of a consortium with utility companies and local authorities in the North East, provided digital data exchange platform, anchored in geospatial data and tested it in existing work practices. This enables any of the participating organisations to see an integrated, common and consistent map view of the underground assets in the location they are looking to excavate, with the most crucial operational information available, on a single device.
The response from users has been overwhelmingly positive, and the predicted impact for national implementation is huge. By improving collaboration and access to better quality location data, decreasing the time it takes for dig-teams to obtain reliable underground maps, and reducing the need for exploratory excavations, the UK economy could save billions of pounds per year.
While utility strikes pose a safety risk to both excavation teams and local people, the local economy is also affected when street works limit the flow of traffic and increase congestion. This increases commute time for workers and affects the ability of businesses and emergency services operate. Due to a lack of sufficient accurate data on underground assets, these projects are often abandoned or extended, with continued repercussions.
The NUAR pilot in the North East of England showed operational efficiency can be transformed with reliable access to underground asset data. Gaining the trust of data providers that their assets are securely protected by the platform was an anticipated challenge, further complicated by the disparities in the provider’s technology readiness, and differences in the legal and commercial implications between utilities. However, the investment in building a collaborative network is worthwhile – when committed toward this shared purpose, participants gain significant operational efficiencies and better customer satisfaction. The benefits to each of the stakeholders are shared by all and could save a substantial proportion of the estimated economic cost of unwanted utility incidents.
The challenges in building a data exchange platform for a NUAR are beyond the technological – acting as the neutral data broker, it is essential that we demonstrate flexibility in the pace and format of data input, function of the platform, and dedication to stringent security. Yet, the insights from the pilot are powerful and demonstrate how geospatial data is excellently placed to serve as the universal, secure system with which to link the information on our underground assets – which the UK is set to benefit greatly from.
To learn more about NUAR, watch the webinar Unlocking value - delivering the National Underground Asset Register.