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“Sub-surface mapping reduces damage to underground utilities”

Ananda Rao Appamah, Managing Director, Axis Circle
Ananda Rao Appamah
Managing Director, Axis Circle, Malaysia

Damages to subsurface utility facilities during construction processes can incur significant financial and non-financial losses. In an exclusive with Geospatial Media, Ananda Rao Appamah of Malaysia-based Axis Circle tells us how subsurface utility engineering solutions can address this issue prior to construction

Kindly brief us about solutions and services provided by Axis Circle?
Axis Circle provides subsurface utility engineering (SUE) solutions which are a significant tool to reduce the risk from information uncertainty associated with underground facilities in a construction project. Our services include underground utility location/detection and mapping; corridor planning for proposed utilities; underground utility detection for earthwork and construction sites. i.e. bore holes and piling works; base map survey; as-built survey for recently buried utilities; profile survey for planning of over-head electric transmission lines, horizontal directional drilling; detection work as per client’s requirement; and electronic marking of utility facilities.

These solutions are primarily required by those involved in underground infrastructure construction, including utility stakeholders, M&E consultants, civil consultants, surveyors, contractors, specialist contractors, excavation operators, safety officers at site, supervisors and general workers.

The three major areas which require our solutions are: new utility construction, underground infrastructure and utility inspection and relocation of existing utilities.

Our services include determining the location (x, y and z) of buried utilities within the specified area for new constructions or even for data establishment purposes. The utilities mentioned include power cables, street lighting, telecommunication cables including fiber optic cables, gas mains, water mains, sewer pipes, drainage system, signal cables (traffic lights), CATV and CCTV. This is achieved by using combination of latest available technology including electromagnetic signals. Cables and pipe locators are used by transmitting the signal to the utilities via induction. The receiver picks up the electromagnetic signal induced onto the utility. This method is used for utilities which are made of conductive material. Ground penetrating radar is also electromagnetic-based equipment where the transmitter radiates the electromagnetic signals into the earth and is reflected back to the receiver by interfaces between materials with differing dielectric constants. This method is used to determine all other non-conductive type material utilities. Metal detectors, sonde, steel wire/rod and together with above mentioned methods generally give us a class B results of data.

A large part of utility lines, especially in developing nations, are still overhead. So what is the kind of potential you see in sub-surface mapping in utilities?
Sub-surface mapping of utilities is significant tool to reduce the risk of damaging existing buried utilities during a construction project. It is dangerous and expensive to determine the buried utilities during construction and therefore it is best to identify and solve conflicts prior to construction. There are so many issues with regards to subsurface utilities which are not well informed to parties involving directly to construction.

SUE addresses an issue of significant national importance and the increasing potential for damage to underground utility system caused by excavation and utility installation or repair activities. SUE seeks a solution to the problem of effective location of all types of underground utilities in a variety of circumstances found in urban areas.

Overhead utility lines are becoming a thing of the past except in rural areas. The urban underground has become a spider web of utility lines, including phones, electricity, gas, fiber optics, traffic signals, street lighting, drainage, water mains, waste water pipes and the under-construction flood control facilities. In some cases, we witness light rail transit and road tunnels compete for space underground. The current demand on utility services is adding to the problem as multiple service providers are seeking to place their network underground.

Utility lines are all susceptible to being damaged given the construction and renovation excavation in their vicinity. Records are often poor with inaccurate utility positions and depths. Some live services do not even show the utility plans. This means that the ability to physically determine on-site the location, nature and depth of underground utility services is critical in order to reduce the risk and consequences of damage during construction.

Costs of damage are difficult to assess. Repairing the utility line may not be the only cost – there is also a great loss of business revenue due to these utility outages. These damages cause disruptions in services to residences and businesses and project delays. Additional costs to the municipality are in the form of not having a good record or knowledge of existing utilities. This damage often erodes the citizens’ confidence. A good relationship between the authorities responsible for the utilities is also very important. Information must be shared between utilities in order to avoid future conflicts.

How are you using geospatial technology in your activities?
Geographic Information System (GIS) is being used to document utility locations. The field information that is obtained by the GIS personals is very accurate and can be transferred directly onto computer–generated plans. This type of locating reduces the chance of human error and can reduce the number of man hours required for the documentation. These same personnel can then be used to mark the existing utility locations when an excavation project is being designed or constructed.

Knowing where your utilities are will not only save time and money, but it can also reduce the risk of injury, especially when working around underground gas and power lines. An effort must be made to document the underground utility locations in a way that will allow for future generations to locate and work on and around them with confidence.

What are the challenges faced in underground utility mapping?
The challenges are of more of ethics and conduct practice since we have already understand the technical limitations of the equipments. Regulations and guidelines not being implemented or followed and this leads to poor quality inspection by authorities. Another issue is of capacities – having less than required or untrained utility locating surveyors to undertake the job. They can produce inaccurate results which will erode the confidence of clients. Also, contractors produce the utility data maps for the sake of submission to authorities. Knowing that the information will not be crossed checked, they tend to award the utility detection survey job to the cheapest bidder. In the process, the surveying company tends to reduce procedures and doesn’t acquire right equipments to maximise profits. Hence they produce inaccurate utility data results and poor quality work.

How aware do you think are utility companies in the Asia Pacific region about modern technologies like geospatial technology and advanced mapping systems?
All or most utility companies are fully aware of the needs of SUE which addresses solutions for asset management. SUE is becoming uniform within this region and most of the utility companies emphasise to their contractors to practice SUE procedures during the planning stage. Talking about technology, it is already available in this region but the problems we face pertain to limitations of the equipment. Most of the equipments are manufactured based on the conditions of Europe or America. The soil conditions in this region don’t permit the equipments to perform at its highest efficiency. We are currently working with a European manufacturer to design equipment that suits our exact needs.

Companies are often skeptical of investing in modern technology as they may not be aware of the benefits it can offer them vis-à-vis investment. Are there any initiatives from you to make them understand ROI?
We can look into this only upon implementation of strict guidelines by the authorities. We have taken big risks investing in many equipments on various technologies available to fulfill and provide best results to clients. We are willing to invest more provided that there’s an assurance from the authorities that proper guidelines will be practiced by all government agencies.

Axis Circle has recently collaborated with a university in Vietnam. This is an interesting case of collaboration between academia and technology provider. Can you elaborate more upon this?
Yes, we have formed an alliance with a university in Vietnam to incorporate the practice of SUE into the academic syllabus for both survey and geology studies. We believe that this will prepare a well organised subsurface utility infrastructure asset capacity in Vietnam as the nation is on the verge of venturing into new developments. Well planned systems will definitely save the millions of dollars lost to utility owners and commercial industry as a result of utilities getting damaged during construction processes. A lot of damages and accidents are not accounted for and the monetary value goes beyond imaginable figures put together. A simple plan and practices will put the system in place.

What are your expansion plans outside Malaysia?
We do have plans to establish and provide our services into other neighbouring countries and will decide as we move on.