Digital mapping of water infrastructure systems is only going to grow in importance as the opportunities presented by better management of drainage data emerge, writes Tony O’Neill

AQS survey technician carries out topographical survey of site drainage

Out of sight, out of mind. Drainage has always been at the hidden and mysterious end of asset management. In the past, once the initial drainage system had been installed, additions and modifications were often made ad hoc, with incomplete records kept of what had gone where.

For civil engineers and drainage professionals, the result can be a process of discovery. Every time there is a need to work on a building or a whole site’s drainage network, it is not always clear what will be found. Records can be incomplete and inaccurate. Assets on the ground are often hard to find and frequently difficult to identify. Assumptions may have to be made about how the drainage system functions.

However, this picture is changing. New digital technologies and new standards in asset management are resulting in a better understanding of buried drainage assets, as if they are emerging, for the first time, from beneath our feet, before our eyes.

For the past three years, AQS Environmental Solutions, part of Lanes Group plc, has been developing its capabilities, carrying out topographical surveys of drainage assets, and presenting data in ways that help clients better understand the condition of assets and how to maintain them.

Drive for more drainage data

Defect theme applied. Pipelines with Grade 3, 4 and 5 defects highlighted. Defect locations are identified with an X

For larger businesses, these services are of increasing value. A global organisation may demand accurate survey data to support effective decision-making, often carried out remotely. There is now a perceived need for more agile decision-making, based on accurate and current data.

Managing capital costs and establishing business value is increasingly important to support investment decisions, borrowing (at the best rates) and reputation management. Also, with weather patterns becoming more volatile, there is an increased need to more accurately assess and control risks associated with water management.

Engineers are at the heart of this process, gathering and controlling ever-larger amounts of data about drainage assets. It means that engineers, more than ever, need to know everything about drainage systems.

It is a significant change. In the past, you could look across a 200-acre industrial site and realise you might know, for sure, where 60 per cent of the drainage assets were. As for their condition, that was still a mystery.

Now, site engineers want precise co-ordinates for every manhole, pipe, interceptor, catch pit and pump house. They want to know how they are connected, the flow directions, flow rates, size, gradient, what assets are made of and, probably most importantly, their condition and condition-deterioration rates.

They often require the data to be presented in multiple formats that make it easier for them to access and analyse data quickly and powerfully.

This is leading to the generation of a new wave of drainage asset management technologies. Engineering clients will be able to choose from a hierarchy of drainage survey options that incorporate new survey methodologies for data management.

Next-level digital mapping

Map overview from Infonet, with a system-type theme applied. Showing foul and storm drain survey sections and manhole IDs

At the entry level, there are conventional CCTV drainage surveys. Clients receive a PDF drainage survey report detailing the type, size and condition of drainage assets found. The report is supported by separate video clips, which enable the client to view the system and to visualise what is described in the report.

Accessing the required information and adequately assessing the problem so that an adequate and effective solution can be devised takes time. It requires co-ordination of maps and layouts, CCTV reports and CCTV footage, which can be slow and cumbersome when you are searching for a deformation somewhere within a three-minute clip.

Also, it is not that easy to reformat the data and use in different ways, for example, by compiling a spreadsheet of remedials from a PDF report. It is a reporting method that serves a purpose. Clients are familiar with it. But it is not particularly fit for the digital age.

We can now give clients a ‘next level’ approach to drainage surveying. Using specialist water infrastructure management software, called Infonet, combined with topographical surveying techniques, to build interactive, GPS-coordinated digital maps of pipe systems. Clients can receive three-dimensional data of the surveyed system.

Each map can be interrogated in a number of ways, using proprietary software and bespoke themes. Themes allow presentation of data in clear and easily understood maps. For example, the pipes with major defects could be coloured red, or the 225mm-diameter pipes within a foul network could be dashed.

Clients can isolate pipes of different types, sizes or purposes. More sophisticated themes can be incorporated, that allow identification such as requirements for confined space entry, current condition, and process data. The system can also assign flags to data to identify its source.

For example, it may have been surveyed and mapped by a previous contractor, or taken from old maps to assist in an understanding of the overall network. The flags permit the user to identify the source and to plan further survey works when budgets allow.

Infonet was initially acquired to fulfil a programme of work for Irish Water four years ago. Since then, its capabilities and have been further explored and expanded with other clients who need to manage drainage assets more rigorously.

With a current sizeable project, we are looking to take the survey and data management process to a higher level again, by coupling CCTV video clips to the digital-mapping data. This will allow clients to select a drainage section on screen, click on it and access the video footage for that section. They will be able to click on an individual defect within the line, and the video clip will open at that location.

Advanced drainage analysis

CCTV details selected from a map view. Details of the CCTV survey for the selected line (highlighted in green) are shown, with the CCTV recorded footage underneath. The footage can be played by selecting a line from the table

This permits access to all drainage asset condition data and evidence from one source. It dispenses with juggling maps, reports and video footage, and allows the user to go straight to the key issues. When themes highlighting defects and click-activated CCTV footage are combined, our clients will be able to assess a major issue within seconds.

This will lead the way for digital mapping to underpin powerful new ways to plan drainage maintenance and capital development programmes. Backed by a high level of data accuracy and rich historical data, engineers will be able to use such maps as predictive tools to:

  • Reduce risk of failure;
  • Model, plan and schedule work programmes;
  • Integrate below-ground asset management within wider business decision-making;
  • While all the time managing costs effectively.

There is growing demand for this kind of digital drainage mapping. In recent framework contracts, Irish Water has stipulated that Infonet should be used for data management. Such software systems are also ideally suited to meeting the due diligence requirements of the Environmental Protection Agency’s risk-assessed testing cycles for drainage systems.

This water infrastructure management software gives engineers a number of important benefits. It gives speedy access to accurate data. It supports collaborative working across maintenance and capital development programmes – an issue where supply chain integration and effectiveness is key to project success. It makes drainage system management scalable. As sites develop, so can the virtual digital map.

It improves asset control and management, with opportunities for real-time collaboration of office-based management teams (wherever they are in the world) and on-site operational teams in live pipe system maintenance issues, such as complex rehabilitation projects, which may be business-critical.

Not least, it reduces risks and improves site safety. Asset management is as much about confidence in data as data accuracy. Knowing and being able to show data is accurate reduces the need to carry out additional work ‘just in case’. This will reduce the need for a range of interventions, including confined space entries, which add to cost and health and safety risks.

Digital mapping of water infrastructure systems is only going to grow in importance. How fast and widely it is taken up will be determined by a range of factors, including investment and regulatory pressure. However, the opportunities presented by better management of drainage data are just starting to emerge, and be realised.

Tony O’Neill, head of drainage network and asset surveying, AQS Environmental Solutions, Thurles, Co Tipperary. Email: O'RiordanCivildigital,infrastructure,software,water
Out of sight, out of mind. Drainage has always been at the hidden and mysterious end of asset management. In the past, once the initial drainage system had been installed, additions and modifications were often made ad hoc, with incomplete records kept of what had gone where. For civil engineers...