March 22, 2006 7:49 AM PST

Satellite tech to map U.K.'s underground cables

Researchers in the U.K. are taking mapping technology to the underworld.

As part of a $3.8 million project, researchers at the universities of Leeds and Nottingham will try to create a 3D map of the pipes and cables buried under U.K. roads--a project that aims to reduce roadwork and prevent workmen from inadvertently digging through electricity lines.

The research team will try to create the map by integrating existing digital and paper-based records and linking them with data from satellite and ground-based GPS systems.

The information will then be accessible by contractors, utility companies and planners using a PC in the office or handheld device in the street.

Four million holes are dug each year in U.K. roads. The pipes and cables buried under the streets would stretch to the moon and back 10 times, according to the researchers.

Tony Cohn, professor of automated reasoning at Leeds and lead researcher on the project, claims the 3D map will cut congestion caused by holes in the road and ensure that workmen dig in the right place.

"We'll always need to dig holes in the street, but reducing the amount of roadwork would bring enormous economic and environmental benefits, with fewer traffic jams and exhaust emissions," Cohn said in a statement.

The 3D map will also help reduce the number of fatalities and injuries caused every year by accidental hits on gas pipes and electricity cables.

"Many of the country's underground pipes were laid in the 19th and early 20th century, when it wasn't seen as important to keep accurate records of location and depth," Cohn said. "Even where we have records, many are now very inaccurate as reference points, such as curbs or buildings which have moved or been demolished."

The researchers admit that one of the challenges will be trying to create a satellite-based location technology, accurate to within a centimeter, that can work even in "urban canyon" black spots.

The project, called Vista, is being led by the University of Leeds in collaboration with the University of Nottingham and 19 companies and organizations from the utilities, transport and engineering sectors. It is managed by UK Water Industry Research.

The Department of Trade and Industry is providing $1.56 million in funding, with the remainder coming from project partners including BT, National Grid Transco, Ordnance Survey, Thames Water and Transport for London.

Vista will link with an ongoing $1.74 million Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council funded project called Mapping the Underworld, which is researching improved GPS and sensor technologies to find pipes and new ways of "tagging" newly buried pipes.

Andy McCue of Silicon.com reported from London.

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