GPS Technology Enhancing Underground Utility Locating

Pilot Project Aims To Improve Data Sharing, Stakeholder Communication
April 2010 Vol. 65 No. 4

Communication in the underground locating business is vital to providing accurate and timely information between one-call centers, utilities, locators and excavators. However, often even the best lines of communication can break down, whether it’s transferring data or just communications between the different stakeholders.

Virginia Utility Protection Service Inc. (VUPS) located in Roanoke, VA, is a one-call notification center for the state of Virginia. The center notifies utilities of upcoming excavation work so they can locate and mark the underground facilities to prevent possible damage to underground utility lines — in turn, preventing injury, property damage and service outages.

VUPS is implementing an extensive program to enhance two-way communication and data sharing between underground utility stakeholders.

“We’ve developed a three-phase program to expand our basic services beyond just mapping, determining the area of excavation and distributing notifications,” says Rick Pevarski, VUPS president and CEO. “The new program will reduce the number of over-notifications, provide enhanced data to excavator and facility owners and ultimately provide two-way, real-time communication between the one-call center and the excavator at the jobsite.”

Challenges abound
Damage to underground facilities has the potential to result in serious consequences to both public safety and the environment, and the cost can reach into the millions of dollars. The impact on energy pipelines alone over a 10-year period ending in 2006 has been dramatic. During that period, more than 680 incidents were reported where pipelines were damaged by excavation, resulting in more than $259 million in property damage.

Another challenge is over-notification within the industry, which has a significant impact on stakeholder resources and the efficacy of the one-call process. In fact, an estimated 150 million notification tickets are issued annually in the U.S., and vague and incorrect excavation site descriptions on locate requests submitted to the one-call center only exasperate the problem.

Phase I of the Virginia Utility Protection Service project was primarily designed to reduce the rate of over-notification by improving the quality and accuracy of locate notification tickets. The project targeted Fairfax County in northern Virginia as the test area and incorporated global positioning system (GPS) coordinates in facility locate requests submitted by excavators.