UK to gain digital map of cables and pipes

NUAR available to users in first UK locations
Sheila Zabeu -

April 26, 2023

The United Kingdom is working on a digital map of cables and pipes that intends to revolutionize installation, maintenance, operation and repair processes of these underground assets. The project is called the National Underground Asset Register (NUAR) and is expected to save at least £350 million a year through increased efficiency and reduced disruption to citizens and businesses. It will also help the economy grow by accelerating projects for new roads, new homes and broadband deployment.

The first phase of NUAR is gathering data from around 80 public and private sector organisations in the North East region of England, Wales and London. These institutions include the main providers of energy and water services, as well as telecommunications and transport companies and local authorities.

“This first version of NUAR is an important milestone in a programme that will benefit everyone. By using the power of location data to plan and deliver works more efficiently, we will improve the delivery of essential services and minimize disruption. Many types of assets are buried beneath our feet, belonging to many organizations, large and small. We are delighted that so many asset owners have recognized the value of working with us to make the data they hold more accessible,” explains Steve Unger, Independent Member for Geospatial Commission, part of the UK Department for Science, Innovation and Technology.

NUAR platform
Source: NUAR

For Colin Sawkins, warranty and enablement specialist at Cadent Gas Limited, being able to survey virtually all available assets before excavating to fix gas or water leaks or carry out other urgent work puts operators in a much better position to help prevent damage to underground assets and to the population.

It is estimated that there are around 4 million kilometres of buried pipes and cables in the UK and that an excavation is carried out every 7 seconds to install, repair or maintain these critical assets for the delivery of essential services. Around one in every 65 excavations results in an accidental collision between assets – or around 60,000 per year – causing £2.4 billion of economic damage as well as putting workers and citizens at risk.

Over 650 companies responsible for assets in the public and private sectors are required by UK law to share data for ‘safe excavation’ purposes. However, there is currently no standardised method for doing this, so such information is provided in varying formats, scale and quality, creating complex management of the installation, maintenance, operation and repair processes of underground assets.

“With NUAR, engineers will have instant access to underground asset records and be able to produce a single plan, rather than compiling it from multiple sources. We will no longer need to respond to individual requests. Our records will be on NUAR and can be obtained directly there,” explains Bob Wood, Darlington Borough Council’s technical systems manager.

Before this current phase of NUAR follows, two pilot projects had already been carried out between 2019 and 2021. The project is expected to include all underground infrastructure in England, Wales and Northern Ireland by 2025.

First and next steps

Mapping resources in a city is a simple but necessary first step to making it smart. Digital geolocation technologies are one of the important tools that have contributed to transforming the way cities and essential service providers are performing their tasks and meeting their commitments more efficiently.

As well as improving some logistics of public services, as NUAR in the UK intends, mapping and geolocation program in cities can help in areas such as:

  • Public transport, optimising routes and reducing congestion;
  • Public safety, with cameras, sensors and surveillance systems;
  • Waste management and emergency response, providing real-time information and making efficient resource allocation;
  • Sustainability, collecting and analysing data on the environmental impact of activities in the city.

For example, an aerial mapping programme in the United States employs an airborne sensor to capture highly detailed 3D data, including 360° views of buildings and features at street level. The solution is being used in city management and planning for use in visualisations, simulations and also digital twins.

So-called digital twins use real-time data and artificial intelligence to offer limitless simulation opportunities in sectors such as infrastructure and construction to traffic and energy consumption. The use of digital twins in urban contexts, both for planning and asset management, is expected to generate savings of $280 billion by 2030, according to a report by ABI Research. “Cost savings could be achieved in areas, such as energy and utilities, transportation, safety and security and infrastructure (roads/buildings). However, urban digital twins can also offer many other advantages in terms of supporting and improving sustainability, circularity, decarbonisation and overall quality of urban life,” says Dominique Bonte, vice president of markets at ABI Research.

Some recent examples of the use of digital come from Australia and the Netherlands. In Brisbane, Australia’s fastest growing city, a digital twin is helping to build the city’s first metro, while Rotterdam is developing a digital twin to manage its port. An entirely new city is also being created in Saudi Arabia based on 3D mapping and digital twins.