For all pipeline and utility owners and operators, safety and damage prevention are the first priorities. Safety programs are focused on the workplace safety of personnel while damage prevention programs are programs that assure the integrity of facilities and infrastructure and the safety of third parties and the public working or living near facilities.
Current Utility Locating Practice to support Damage Prevention
Almost all jurisdictions in North America follow the same process that has been in place for a decade or so. When an excavator wants to perform any ground-breaking activity, they must first contact a One Call Center to request a ticket. The One Call Center reviews the request, issues a ticket and notifies affected utility owners, who then review the ticket request and either give a clearance or go out and perform a physical locate of their assets.
In either case, a positive response is given within the legal timeframe so that the excavator
can proceed with the work. In the last decade or so, the only real improvements to the process is the use of computer applications that enable excavators to perform online ticket requests and allow utility owners and locate service providers to manage the One Call ticket notifications. The process is essentially unchanged and only the basic tools have improved.
Recent Damage Prevention Advancements
There are several areas where combining technologies bring value to the utility locating process. The first area relates to registering the precise location of the buried infrastructure by using a locate tool, a GPS receiver, and a mobile computer to capture the data. Using this configuration, locators can not only accurately register the location of the assets, they can also create a document with embedded photos to show that the locate was marked out correctly, create an electronic sketch capturing the base map and show the accuracy of the data points collected for each utility or pipeline – who, when, and how the locate was performed. This leads us to the second area of improvement. For every point collected during the locate, the system can document exactly what equipment was used, along with the data showing the data pedigree, including the locate tool frequency used and signal strength, depth readings, GPS accuracy and the number of satellites in view, the precise latitude and longitude, elevation, etc. The locator can not only capture this information, but can easily send it to the utility owner to be compared against existing records and correct any discrepant records in their GIS database. This ability provides owners significant value from a locate that historically has been (for the most part) purely an expense.
The Near Future of the Utility Locating Business
In the very near future, utility locating will see the advent of the use of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags embedded in or affixed to pipelines and cables during installation. The locate technician will receive a locate request in real time from the One Call Center based on who he works for and his coverage area. He will receive it on his mobile device with the ticket boundary defined and the contact information and other
ticket details displayed. When he locates a line, an RFID tagged line will confirm the owner, line type, and size. Once he completes the locate, the positive response is automatically forwarded to the One Call Center and the excavator. If there are any discrepancies between the centerline information in the owner’s GIS and the locate that is performed in the field, an automatic alert can be sent to the GIS administrator who can then contact the locate technician in real time to discuss what was found in the field and decide if the information needs to be updated from the data collected in the field. Once the GIS data in an area is known to be accurate, buffer zones can be reduced, substantially
reducing the cost of over-notifications.
In the not-so-distant future, every piece of excavation equipment will have onboard GPS and will not only know its own position, but be able to see any nearby subsurface (or surface for that matter) utilities depicted in a Heads Up display. This will allow the operator to “see” where the utilities are so that they are not damaged. Virtual Reality will
also be utilized so that the operator has a clear picture of the situation and can act appropriately.
Imagine, if you will, a future where a piece of excavation equipment located on a right-of-way or within a buffer zone for an asset will not be able to excavate (or perhaps even start) unless all of the required conditions to excavate have been met!
Other Damage Prevention Activities
Other damage prevention programs are also seeing benefits from the use of newer technologies.
Public awareness programs are leveraging online landowner databases and electronic forms to record and manage landowner contacts in real time with great success. Gone are the paper forms and rekeying of data, reducing time, cost, errors and improving the ability to manage the program.
Pipeline patrols are now fully supported by mobile devices connected to the portal so when a patroller makes an observation during an aerial patrol, the pipeline technicians are notified in real time so they can respond immediately to ensure the safety of the pipeline. By allowing pilots access to One Call tickets in their map display, they know immediately
if someone is digging on or near the right-of-way without a ticket and this will, of course, elevate the priority of the response by ground personnel.
Precision GPS receivers can produce survey grade maps in real time and at much less than
the cost of traditional surveying, and can send and display this data on mobile devices. When a Bluetooth-capable locate tool is also added to the configuration, highly accurate electronic maps of underground infrastructure are produced. When connected to a web-based portal over a secure cellular network, the project database can also be updated in real time. If a cellular connection is not available, the data can be captured in an “offline”
mode and synched later when a cellular connection or WiFi is available.
The secure cloud platform provides the ability to communicate between the web-based portal and the mobile devices to provide field and office personnel real-time access to information. The portal also acts as a clearinghouse for integration backend systems such as GIS systems and CADD databases to give real-time access to these systems from the field without incurring additional license costs and extensive training.
RFID tags provide access to specifications, maintenance records, installation information, and location (track and trace) history. The unique identifier provided by the RFID tag would be used as the key to access data and historical information to auto-populate forms and inspection reports, and reduce the number of errors introduced by manual data entry. Bluetooth RFID readers capture this information where it can be incorporated with the other data collected on the mobile device and bound to the record. RFID will play a
critical part in ensuring compliance with materials management regulations.
Advances in technology have presented the industry with a new set of tools to provide real-time access to information. The ability to share this information with stakeholders helps assure safety and compliance with regulations. The reduction of manual data entry and the ability to quality assure data in virtual real time makes the information more timely, accurate, and reliable.
The need to embrace change and become more transparent and effective has never been greater. The need is real, the technology is here and the time is now.
Steve Slusarenko, PMP, BSc. is the Chief Services Officer at ProStar Geocorp, Inc. Steve has more than thirty years of Oil & Gas industry experience and specializes in business process design and software configuration.
Layne Tucker is the founder of EchoRFID™ and a cofounder of ProStar. Layne brings more than thirty years of pipeline construction experience and along with his
associates, leads a consortium of RFID Experts.