With increasing pressure on space in many cities, using the underground space for a range of different functions such as car parking, shopping, housing of utilities and as a resource, for example for groundwater and thermal extraction, becomes more and more important. This has the potential to free up surface space for green developments. But the underground space is already congested, which causes hazards for new developments, and we do not have a masterplan in the UK for its use.
Knowing where gas and water pipelines, electricity cables and sewage outlets are located is not always easy. Most are carried underground, and some are over two centuries old. The fact that many sit below surface transport routes such as roads, pedestrian areas or railways can mean that maintaining, replacing or installing these can cause serious disruption to both utilities supplies and above ground transport.
At the University of Birmingham, Department of Civil Engineering, we are investigating ways of identifying more accurately what is below the ground. This will benefit the range of engineers who maintain our infrastructure in their day to day work by not wasting their time with excavations in the wrong place and reduce the risk of damaging pipes or cables buried in the ground, which can have a significant risk to health and safety of the operator and the public.
The impact on the use of the road and the utility congestion below the ground was recently discussed by the Director of the Urban Design Group, Robert Huxford, stating that the current situation of ‘free-for-all’ is not sustainable. Therefore, we are investigating ways to make streetworks sustainable, reduce the risks of utility strikes and value the underground space so that informed decisions can be taken ensuring that the use of the underground space is resilient for future demands.
We are working on many of these infrastructure challenges by developing:
- sensors to look through the ground or attach themselves to buried infrastructures (Mapping the Underworld, Assessing the Underworld, Quantum Technology Gravity Sensors, Smart Pipes),
- robots for self-repairing cities
- assessment tools to determine the resilience of our cities (Liveable Cities)
- novel ways to assess the value and of (buried) infrastructure and new business models (iBuild).
Moreover, we are constructing the National Buried Infrastructure Facility as part of the UK Collaboratorium for Research in Infrastructure and Cities, which will be the largest of its kind to carry out research and training in the detection of buried assets, their condition assessment, soil-structure interaction of buried utilities, geo-structures, tunneling, trenchless technologies for the installation and renewal of buried assets, to name but a few.
So next time you see work being done on the footpath or street and you see the mass of cables and pipes, spare a thought for the complexities facing our large infrastructure providers, but be assured that we’re working on improvements.