Underground Mapping

Ever wonder what’s beneath the roads in Chicago?

Chicago–founded in 1837–has a maze of water pipes, cables, and tunnels that have accumulated over the city’s 180 year history. There are communication lines, both old and new, that crisscross the streets. Every day in the city, construction crews conduct something akin to open heart surgery each day to upgrade water main lines, repair gas lines, and even lay new fiber optic cable while removing telegraph wires. Of course, this is not unique to Chicago. In the United States, over 400,000 underground excavations take place each day. Since some of this information is outdated or not easily accessible, there is an excavation incident roughly every 60 seconds and causing an estimated $1.7 billion in costs.

The City of Chicago has teamed-up with UI Labs’ City Digital to launch a pilot with a that will begin to deploy a platform to collect and create a 3-D map of underground infrastructure. This platform will provide a clearer insight so engineers and crews can better plan their work, identify issues, and lower the overall time to complete underground excavations and reduce costs. By housing this information in a platform, it will allow the City of Chicago to securely share limited data with utilities and other organizations that need to understand what is below Chicago’s roads, while limiting to only sections that are needed to be known.

Rendering of subsurface infrastructure

Rendering of subsurface infrastructure by HBK Engineering

Digital maps do already exist of Chicago’s subsurface labyrinth. But these often represent construction plans. Sometimes crews go beneath the street only to find there is a need to improvise, often because they come across undocumented structures that impede their initial plans. This new approach will use basic digital cameras and sophisticated software to scan the actual underground assets in the city.

Photo of underground infrastructureA project like this cannot be done alone. City of Chicago teamed up with UI Labs’ City Digital and their partners, HBK Engineering and Accenture, to kick-start this project.

New technology developed by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Real-Time and Automated Monitoring and Control Lab (RAAMAC) and Chicago start-up CityZenith will allow the city to scan and 3-D map Chicago’s underground assets.

One difficult part of a project like this is collecting the correct data that is economical and relies on widely available techniques. RAAMAC’s solution allows images captured from off-the-shelf cameras, such a basic DSLR camera.

Those images are inputted into RAAMAC’s software to create a stereoscopic image that renders a computer model of the underground infrastructure. Over a dozen images can be seemlessly captured during typical repair and construction adding no additional time for data collection. On-site engineers are able to collect this information without interfering with crews and with cameras that are affordable.

Underground utility stereoscopic map derived from DSLR pictures

Underground utility stereoscopic map derived from pictures using standard digital cameras

These renderings can be provided to engineers, planners, and crews. These models can also be securely shared between the City of Chicago and other companies with underground infrastructure to improve project planning and limiting accidents. Sharing can be limited to specific areas in the city so information does not get over-shared. For those with access, they will be able to see detailed renderings of the location of the underground infrastructure with rich metadata on each pipe, fiber optic connection, water main, and more:

The visualization will provide more than just a sophisticated interface. Having a full understanding of the city’s underground infrastructure will help avoid accidents that have a history of interrupting commutes or worse.

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