Engineering and the Environment

Mapping the Underworld

24 May 2012


Researchers at the University of Southampton are involved in a major national project that could transform the way that gas, electric, water and telecommunications pipes and cables are laid, repaired and replaced in the UK.

‘Mapping the Underworld' will be featured in a programme on BBC Radio Four to be transmitted at 11.00am on Friday 25 May 2012. Adam Hart-Davis interviewed members of the team and others involved with underground utilities to tell the story.

It's estimated four million holes are dug each year to lay, repair or remove buried pipes and cables. However, if utility companies are not certain where they are, excavations can result in serious problems such as burst water mains and major disruption to services.

Dr Jen Muggleton, from the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research (ISVR) at the University of Southampton, works with colleagues from the Universities of Birmingham, Bristol, Bath, Leeds and Sheffield on ‘Mapping the Underworld', which is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). They want to know how to combine several technologies to come up with new ways to accurately track the exact location of buried pipes and cables. Techniques being investigated include ground penetrating radar, low frequency electro magnetics, vibro-acoustics and magnetic field technologies.

"All the technologies work well in different conditions," she explains. "If we can come up with a device that can link them and integrate the data, we will have a much better chance of locating everything buried under the ground. Utility companies are very interested in our work as it will help them replace aging infrastructure which may not feature on maps. For example, many water mains in London date back to Victorian times."

Jen works with vibro-acoustics. She uses a small vibration generator to excite either the ground directly or a buried pipe where it comes up to the surface. The vibrations are transmitted through the ground or along the pipe and can then be detected by geophones laid at ground level.  Subsequent analysis of the received signals allows the run of the pipe to be determined.

The project is coming to the end of its second four year phase; researchers, led by Professor Chris Rogers at Birmingham University, now hope to secure further money to extend their work to assess the condition of buried pipes and cables so companies will know which may need replacing without digging them up. Their work has already been shown to companies, local authorities, MPs and others who are interested in mapping the UK's underworld.