After witnessing the massive devastation left behind by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, coastal communities––especially those located in the gulf––quickly recognized the extreme risks associated with powerful storm systems.


Since then, researchers have been looking for better tools that communities can use to mitigate the damage these large storms can do.


After a wide scale disaster, utility companies and public works departments tasked with assessing and recovering buried assets are often faced with very challenging problems associated with landmark identification. Buried assets are commonly located by citing the positions of aboveground landmarks relative to one other.


When these landmarks are damaged or destroyed by hurricanes, tornados, or other extreme weather, crews are forced to estimate the approximate positions of the utilities with varying degrees of accuracy. This is not only a potentially costly and time consuming process, but is also hazardous to crews who may mistakenly excavate near a dangerous asset.


Study illustrates the potential benefits of a technological solution


In an attempt to find a better way to cleanup and safely remove damaged assets from a disaster area, Chetan S. Sankar, Advisory Professor of Information Systems at Auburn University’s Raymond J. Harbert College of Business Geospatial Research and Applications Center (GRAC) experimented with combining three geolocation systems into one process that could be used by utility engineers to quickly locate assets that would otherwise be undetectable from the surface.


The system was designed to use both Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, precise magnetic location, and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tools to create an “IT-enabled” infrastructure cities could use to map and locate buried utilities fast without a reliance on landmarks.


51 students armed with smartphones and tablets loaded with GPS-enabled software conducted the study in the field to test whether a potential RFID tagging system could prove useful for identifying particular assets when their exact locations were unknown. Bill Rushing, our vice president here at Berntsen International, provided the InfraMarker RFID system to simulate the kind of technological infrastructure a city could implement in order to benefit from such a system on a grand scale.


Asset targets buried underground were fitted with Inframarker RFID tags programmed with particular information students could use for identification. Using GPS, students tasked with finding a particular asset first narrowed their scope to a general area where they could begin using magnetic location and Berntsen’s InfraMarker Mobile Readers to pinpoint and verify the exact location where the asset was buried.


The results were promising––students located 91 percent of the targets in an average of 2.51 minutes.  The official report stated that, “using these technologies in combination could be very beneficial in a post-disaster setting where the time and accuracy of asset recovery are vital.”


RFID proves essential for accurate locating and asset identification


While GPS systems were shown to be an extremely efficient tool for crews needing to narrow their search efforts, the accuracy is less than precise. After an area of a few square meters is determined as the target range, crews switched from GPS to magnetic location and RFID in order to accurately isolate a more exact point directly above and verify the utility asset.


The RFID tag buried above or alongside the buried asset transmits data stored on the tag up to the technician using a handheld reader capable of displaying the information. The benefits of the RFID component go beyond simply locating assets to include a means of identification as well. The information transmitted from the tags can be used to distinguish what would otherwise be an unknown object.


This is particularly useful in urban situations where multiple utilities are situated in close proximity to one another. Traditionally, teams would need to dig in order to identify and ascertain the condition of buried utilities. With RFID, this information can be read directly from the surface with no excavation required.


Vaile Feemster, Manager of the Dauphin Island Water and Sewer Authority, was one of many industry leaders to express excitement with the results of the study.


“The ability to quickly identify critical infrastructure will free up man hours, eliminate repairs and cost due to infrastructure damaged as a result of road clearing crews, and allow us to continue our focus on providing water and sewer services,” Feemster said to The Shareholder Online.


For more information on the InfraMarker, Berntsen’s cutting-edge, all-in-one RFID marking system, visit the InfraMarker product page or request a catalog.

Photo Credit: USACE HQ via Compfight cc