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What lurks beneath: creating a complete picture of the UK’s underground world

What lurks beneath: creating a complete picture of the UK’s underground world
21 Sep
The Department of Transport believes street works impact the UK economy by £4.3 billion per year, slowing transport links as well as affecting public safety. Poor understanding of what lurks beneath exacerbates the problem. The Geospatial Commission and Ordnance Survey are working to build a complete picture of the UK’s underground assets

The ground beneath our feet is teeming with connectivity. Cables, pipes, ducts, and fibre optics are the venous foundations of modern life. With the population of London estimated to rise by 37 per cent, to 11 million by 2050, the UK’s urban development will continue to accelerate. Accurate information on subsurface space is paramount to the growth of the UK’s utilities and transport infrastructure, yet is often stymied by patchy data.

The Geospatial Commission, an expert committee formed to optimise the UK government’s use of location data, is now modernising information on the subsurface. In collaboration with Ordnance Survey, they are overseeing the development of a National Underground Asset Register (NUAR). This platform will pull in governmental and private data on the whereabouts of cables, pipes, sewers, and ducts, to build a standardised digital map. With UK utility networks extending over 1.5 million kilometres, mapping is no easy undertaking.

A prototype platform was launched in April 2019 in two 12-month pilots in the northeast of England and in London. As initial tests to guide the upcoming national rollout, the pilots have thus far proven a success.

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Foggy information on subsurface space is a serious issue. The Department of Transport believes that street works impact the UK economy by £4.3 billion per year, slowing transport links as well as affecting public safety. Every construction project in the UK runs the risk of boring through pipes and cables. Accidental damages cost the UK economy an estimated £1.2 billion per year.

Utility companies often need to dig simply to establish what is lurking underground. ‘There’s the concept of a trial hole, where ground is excavated to see whether underground assets can be found. If not, excavation is widened, and this can create a lot of disruption to transportation,’ says Carsten Roensdorf, strategic proposition manager at Ordnance Survey.

The problem lies in the incremental additions to the UK’s underground space over the decades. As a result, available data on the whereabouts of assets, their extent and their ownership is limited. Construction projects must source information from multiple organisations, that often deliver patchy data to differing quality standards. The consequences can be severe: ‘New construction and development projects often need to avoid or to reroute existing utility assets. Not knowing what’s underground can have a significant impact on the risk profile of the project,’ says Roensdorf, who is passionate about the economic value of subsurface location data.

Economies are clearly losing out: Ordnance Survey believe that improved subsurface knowledge could hasten the development of infrastructural projects such as HS2.

The Geospatial Commission are hoping for a national rollout in 2021. ‘The NUAR will be a central resource for data exchange on subsurface space’ says Roensdorf. By streamlining everyday utility maintenance, and hastening large infrastructural projects like HS2, NUAR is set to be a boon for the UK economy.

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