As head of public-realm city planning, Martin Whittles manages 20,000 street openings a year for Westminster, U.K. To reduce the number of openings, the London-area municipality is investing in a web-based system that allows utilities to work together to build a digital map that pinpoints specific belowground assets.

“One of our biggest problems is congestion of public works and unnecessary damage to the streets by repeatedly opening the same patch of ground,” says Whittles. “At least 20% of the openings the utilities are making are exploratory.”

To avoid this redundant work, Whittles is adopting Intelligent Trench for Westminster.

Intelligent Trench is a web-based mapping system whose data is expanded and enriched as users place radio frequency identification (RFID) markers into the ground during excavation. When the ground is closed, the markers remain. The markers transmit a unique ID to web-based servers. The electronic signatures contain packets of information detailing what's below the ground around each marker. The enriched mapping system is overlayed on Google maps and improved as contractors and utilities add markers to the asset database.

“We're doing this to promote the ability to share asset locations,” says Steve Voller, industry solutions director at Bentley Systems Inc., Exton, Pa. Voller plans to bring the system to the U.S.

Intelligent Trench combines RFID markers, field-based global-positioning-system data-collection software—running on a personal digital assistant (PDA)—and a spatial database to document and precisely pinpoint the content of excavations.

Intelligent Trench's basic underground mapping information is available for free online, but pinpointing the RFID markers requires a $1,400 locator from 3M. The model that enables cable detection is $4,000. There is also the cost of the PDA software and the online-portal access costs to consider.

Intelligent Trench began sharing its information with Collingwood, Australia-based PelicanCorp's Before You Dig service on Sept. 6.

A user can initiate a Dial Before You Dig request from within the Intelligent Trench web portal. Next, PelicanCorp pings any utilities that have worked in the area; then, utilities deny or confirm whether they have infrastructure that could be affected by excavation. The information is relayed to the user.

Whittles says that, in the future, all of Westminster's utilities will have access to a digital underground view of the city. The intent is simple and straightforward: Utility contractors will avoid hitting existing pipes as well as having to dig up the same ground twice.