Skybound: How The Future Of Underground Mapping Can Be Found In The Cloud

Land surveyors have been locating and mapping underground infrastructure to provide construction professionals and engineers with final plans and records that reflect an accurate representation of the natural and built environment. Our predecessors excavated around buried utilities, underground structures, and foundation elements to map the existing conditions. The results were plotted and depicted on plans and prints, often in meticulous detail.

Since then, the industry has seen a dramatic technological evolution. Non-destructive vacuum excavation equipment has replaced the steam-powered shovel. Remote sensing devices help trace the path of buried facilities without having to unearth them. GPS and terrestrial LiDAR systems have replaced old surveyors’ transits and levels to augment survey systems.

The next evolution for our industry is now emerging: cloud-based data collection and storage systems that are transforming the subsurface utility mapping industry.

There are constant challenges involved in every step of collecting, storing, sharing and recording surface utility data. Many vital utility records have been lost or discarded, and with them, critical details that could help asset owners protect underground facilities from damage during construction and other work. Storing and retrieving the records that have been preserved is often time-consuming, expensive, and seen as an undue burden on asset owners. In the utility location and mapping communities, there is an urgent need to standardize workflows involved in utility tracing, surveying, and data sharing, in both two and three dimensions.

Fortunately, the advancements that cloud-based systems bring to our industry are just as multifaceted.

In conjunction with software developers, cloud-based storage designers have begun creating systems aimed at improving the workflow for subsurface location and mapping professionals. For example, utility locators and surveyors have long used utility locating devices like ground penetrating radar (GPR) systems to detect and identify buried infrastructure, but with little or no electronic data to support the accuracy of the field data acquisition work. Today, cloud-based systems used in unison with GPS and Bluetooth transmissions enable site professionals to capture, locate, store, and share quality utility work right from the site.

In many cases, this can provide a “positive response” to a utility locate request and attaches the precise survey position of the work in conjunction with the necessary attribution.

By using cloud-based storage, the data can be shared with supervisors who can in turn provide timely information to the engineers and contractors. It allows for the performance of QA/QC measures to ensure the work was performed in accordance with industry practices and the defined standard of care. The cloud solutions also enable the data to be “georeferenced” to future use, billing, sharing, and querying.

A Canadian Success Story

On a recent major project in Toronto, Canada, a cloud-based data storage and mobile inspection system called Builterra was used to standardize and centralize considerable amounts of utility inspection data and photos specifically documenting the existing buried utilities and wet services for over a 12-km section of roadway in a busy urban area.

Over 6,500 hydrovac excavations and 800 sewer structures (manholes/catch basins) were inspected and documented for the sole purpose of standardized reporting, pre-construction 3D modeling and clash detection, and 2D profile and cross section drafting.

This is also called Building Information Modeling (BIM) for Utility and Civil Engineering at its best. For every hydrovac utility excavation or manhole lid removed, the inspector was able to capture the required Level A data quickly and accurately using a simple-to-use smartphone app. BIM is best when the data collected has a value to the inspector. Standard reports with location map, photos and data measurements were completely automatically generated to PDF format. Summary testhole data and invert data was output to Excel. All data was seamlessly post-processed or merged with survey-accurate positioning ready for CAD processes.

Utility data and invert data was so standardized that the use of custom automation built for AutoCAD Civil3D further extended the productivity beyond reports and captioned photos and into the world of CAD design and BIM.

AutoCAD automation was developed to import data into plan view, project utility data into profile views, and actually create the 3D utility models automatically directly from the cloud data. This meant that BIM was an inherent result of using the right combination of mobile data collection and centralized cloud technology to simply get the job done faster and more accurately.

Of course, being in the cloud, the various engineers, owners and utility companies would all have equal access to the centralized data whenever they need it – in real-time. While GIS systems have been doing asset data collection and map view distribution for decades, the simplicity of Builterra using low cost Microsoft Azure with Bing Mapping interface means that any project team member with an email and a password can securely access georeferenced data and photos with little effort.


As with most major utility locating projects, the numerous vendors are contracted to locate and survey the results with varying survey and reporting procedures.

Builterra’s solution helped the construction managers merge and import the data from vacuum excavators, utility locating, and the base CAD files. The ability to import this data and standardize the formatting was crucial to the overall project success. Builterra’s programs imported the data seamlessly, creating standardized submittals and saving thousands of project hours.

The Toronto project showed what we are learning to be increasingly true: The next evolution in underground mapping technology is not beneath our feet, but up in the cloud.

Michael A. Twohig is Project Director for Subsurface Mapping at DGT Associates. He can be reached at or by calling 857-998-2690.

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