AR image with pipes and cables

Underground pipe and cable asset maps to pave way for national register

Image credit: Ordnance Survey

Work is under way to create unified digital maps of underground pipes and cables in north-east England and London.

The pilot projects could eventually lead to a national register of underground assets, which would help save lives and reduce the disruption caused by accidental damage.

Accidental strikes on underground pipes and cables cost an estimated £1.2bn a year to the UK’s economy. Workers who hit gas pipes or power cables by mistake can also put themselves in danger of death or serious injury.

To help prevent such accidents, the government’s Geospatial Commission wants to bring together the existing data on underground pipes and cables owned by various utilities to create an Underground Assets Register showing gas and water pipes, electricity and telecoms cables.

This has begun with a £3.9m investment in pilot projects in London and the North East, to test the feasibility of the concept.

Oliver Dowden of the Cabinet Office, the minister responsible for the projects, visited Sunderland this week to see the work that is already under way to map the area’s underground network. He said: “When workers strike pipes and cables, it risks lives, costs money and causes havoc for residents and road-users. Our investment in this cutting-edge underground map is just one way that the government is working smarter, so that we really make a difference to people’s everyday lives.”

There is currently no comprehensive underground map of the UK’s service network. Different organisations have their own maps showing where such things as gas pipes and electricity cables are, but the lack of a combined map creates an increased risk of potentially lethal accidents.

Work to tackle the problem has so far seen working prototypes created in Sunderland and London. This allows workers to see underground pipes and cables on mobile phones or laptop computers before they start a dig.

In the North East, the project has been led by Ordnance Survey, which has worked with Northumbrian Water, Northern Gas Networks, Northern Powergrid and Openreach.

The Greater London Authority is leading work in the capital alongside infrastructure providers and local authorities.

David Henderson, the managing director of Ordnance Survey Great Britain, said: “The creation of an underground map of utility assets has long been an ambition of Ordnance Survey. Over the last year we have been working closely with Northumbrian Water and a consortia of utility companies and local authorities in the North East of England, to explore how accurate geospatial data can improve underground infrastructure maintenance and inform new-build development projects.

“The investment being made by the Geospatial Commission will ultimately enable the utility industry to more efficiently access, use and share data describing otherwise hidden infrastructure, thereby reducing operational costs, minimising disruption and accelerating completion of site works.”

Heidi Mottram, CEO of Northumbrian Water, who hosted the ministerial visit said: “We are delighted to demonstrate the progress we have made since our Innovation Festival last year, when we first started exploring this idea. Working alongside local authorities, other utility services and partners has meant that we are off to a good start in mapping Sunderland’s underground. We are looking forward to working with government and others to showcase the powers of data sharing for public good.”

In recent years, Ordnance Survey has worked with the British Geological Survey and the Future Cities Catapult on Project Iceberg, which aimed to create a single consistent framework for different users to supply, access and share data about subsurface assets.

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