Excavation damage is one of the most significant threats to the integrity of underground utility assets. Some utility lines cannot be detected with standard locating tools, so researchers are exploring new applications of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology to enhance utility locating operations.
On Oct. 16-17, 2012, the Gas Technology Institute (GTI) hosted a workshop to share the successful outcomes of the three-year Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) RFID marker ball technology program to prevent excavation damage on highway projects. Funding for the workshop was provided by Operations Technology Development (OTD), a partnership of natural gas distribution companies formed to develop, test and implement new technologies. 3M and Utility Sales Associates also provided support for the workshop.
In 2009, VDOT began a pilot project to evaluate the benefits of using programmable RFID marker balls to assist in locating utility lines in congested underground corridors. VDOT developed a collaborative approach with utility companies to purchase, install and map marker balls on two large highway expansion projects. VDOT collected the GPS coordinates of the marker ball installations and created maps to share with DOT utility coordinators and project managers, as well as utility companies and their contract locators.
The workshop — attended by state DOTs, utility owners, engineering companies and technology providers — shared information on the experiences in Virginia with other stakeholders through a combination of presentations, testimonials, and field demonstrations.
Matt McLaughlin, district utility construction engineer for VDOT, noted in his presentation that the marker balls enhanced damage prevention and public safety throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia. The pilot project successfully demonstrated the value of the technology to increase the accuracy of underground utility locates and prevent excavation damage to unmapped utility lines, and the program is being expanded at VDOT.
The event was very well received by attendees. Scott Brown, damage prevention manager at Washington Gas, said “The workshop was a truly enlightening experience of what can be done to protect our assets in a continuously challenging underground jungle. I appreciate the opportunity to have been a part of this workshop, it has inspired Washington Gas to incorporate this new technology in all of our newly installed plastic facilities.”
GTI continues to extend the RFID marker ball technology through the development of advanced mapping techniques using smart phone applications that enable operators to record the location of new marker balls, while geospatially attaching the balls to a specific asset in the GIS. A pilot project with PECO Energy to map marker ball installations using high accuracy GPS with GIS-enabled software running on Android tablets was recently completed with successful outcomes. Pilot projects with two other natural gas utility companies are on-going.
Ron Snedic, president of OTD, noted, “OTD strives to provide the industry with tools that will improve safety and enhance integrity management. The results of the pilot project validated that marker ball technology can provide a low-cost method that overcomes many of the traditional barriers to accurate utility locating, and we anticipate many more success stories about the technology as its use becomes more widespread.”