Tuesday, Mar. 09, 2010

What Lies Beneath

As the CEO of underground solutions, a water-pipeline technology business he founded in the late 1990s, Mark Smith was well aware of the nemesis that plagued his industry. Companies and municipalities need to monitor their underground infrastructure — oil, gas, water and sewer pipes and electric and telecommunications cables — but most of the time have no idea exactly where these conduits are. In 2005, at 51 and as a part owner, he left his company, ostensibly to retire. But the following year, the minute he spotted a new 3-D-imaging technology developed by Reduct, a small mapping company in Belgium, Smith knew he was back in business.

In 2010, Smith's three-year-old Geospatial Corp., in Pittsburgh, Pa., projects revenue of $20 million, a stunning 20 times 2009's numbers. The rapid growth comes from the increasingly critical need of Geospatial's clients — including Comcast, Qwest, Sunoco and various federal and local government agencies — to accurately identify the positions of their underground pipe and cable assets.

Pinpointing them has become a huge challenge. As far back as the 19th century, all that mattered to most contractors was making sure pipelines started and ended at the designated points. During the installation process, if a boulder or other obstruction presented itself, the customary fix was to swerve the pipe to the side of, above or below the obstacle. Keeping the pipe in a straight line was not a priority. Maps typically showed the conduits as designed, not as they were actually laid. "Many underground utility pipelines were installed without a thought of ever finding them again," says Ron Peterson, a consultant and the executive director of the National Utility Locating Contractors Association, adding that concrete and plastic pipes aren't detectable with electromagnetic devices. These aberrations have come back to haunt many firms whose contractors unwittingly hacked into their own — or other companies' — pipelines that were supposed to be somewhere else. "Our members see the time-saving and damage-reduction benefits of using new technologies to locate pipes," says Peterson.

Smith, who is Geospatial's CEO, estimates that in the U.S., utilities and state agencies collectively spend more than $3.5 billion annually to locate subterranean pipes. The standard method is to excavate and then call in a surveyor to take measurements at the top of the pipe at various intervals. This method is relatively slow and expensive, and in most cases, it does not identify the conduit's depth, says Smith.

Geospatial's technology, which Smith has branded Smart Probe, does all its 3-D mapping while coursing through the pipe at a speed of 6 ft. (about 2 m) per second. The probe's cylinder contains measuring devices that perform 800 calculations a second to create an accurate three-dimensional rendering of the conduit. At both ends of the cylinder are wheel sets equipped with odometers. Geospatial customizes the final data for client viewing on different geographic information system (GIS) platforms. Mapping fees depend on project complexity, but in most cases, the cost represents a tiny part of the client's budget, he says.

William Chaparro, who manages pipeline relocations in the western region of the U.S. for Sunoco Logistics, hired Geospatial to map a short section of oil pipe in Tyler, Texas, because of the advanced technology and cost-benefit ratio. "For this project, $5 a foot was not much to pay for the accuracy and long-term accessibility to the data," he says.

Underground data management is the next frontier, says Smith, who's the exclusive licensee of the Smart Probe technology for North and South America as well as Australia, where he'll set up shop this year. For an annual fee, clients can see the 3-D maps of their subterranean assets on a secure Web-based GIS portal called GeoUnderground, which can be easily accessed on a netbook or smart phone. He plans to partner with private equity to create fee-based, revenue-sharing libraries digitally stacked with underground-conduit data for use by engineering companies, developers and municipalities. "There's a spaghetti bowl of cables and pipes below the earth," says Smith. "Our clients are beginning to understand the value of mapping out their entire underground system." But not before he did.