In 2020, when faced with the pressing requirement to enable remote work while still protecting workers on the job site, utility mapping companies and subsurface engineers in the United States considerably increased their technological investments, condensing three years of adoption into one. 

One big reason is safety. Industry leaders were already expecting to see strong growth in technology adoption for utility engineering in this period, because of proven usefulness and lower costs. However, as the pandemic hit, these technologies became more than just nice extras; they became a lifeline for businesses of all kinds, allowing them to keep projects moving forward. Newly developed tools—as well as the implementation of not-so-new tools in the infamously low-tech construction field—proved critical to keeping job sites open while allowing for social distancing. 

The other main reason for tech adoption in utility mapping even before COVID-19 was an issue is the growing demand. By 2024, the global underground utility mapping market is estimated to value $1.4 billion, rising from $842 million in 2019. Contractors need to integrate the use of technology now in order to keep up with the greater demand for services that we are already seeing now and expect to see in the future. And some government initiatives are supporting this rapid adoption. 

How Recent Technology Applications Have Improved Utility Mapping  

In some ways, the pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation of the utility mapping industry, moving things faster than anyone had expected. Innovators, tech companies, and startups have taken notices too. For the first time, these companies are approaching construction and engineering firms looking to help them solve common problems and find ways to increase efficiency, as well as safety. 

Supporting Collaboration via Cloud Platforms 

As the pandemic progressed, the need to implement flexible solutions became more pressing. As a result, a number of companies migrated to the cloud sooner than planned in order to maximize personnel safety and give all team members, internal and external, the necessary visibility to oversee project progress without having to physically visit the site.  

Since the start of the pandemic, construction and trades have turned largely toward cloud-based collaborative tools. This enables firms to work together and be productive even while some team members are working from home. These flexible platforms deliver the information that technicians need on-site, immediately and can be used from anywhere and on any type of device. They ensure that field teams get the most up-to-date information about projects, in real-time. Construction managers and on-site crew can work together on multiple aspects of a project — sharing designs and tracking progress. Plus, cloud tools allow crews to limit the number of workers on any particular job site. 

Implementing Tools to Improve Accuracy & Speed 

Tools including automated optical cameras and laser scanners help teams collect site data at remarkable rates. New, cloud-based solutions with integrated augmented reality (AR) and GIS are being applied to underground mapping. This type of platform was designed to improve access to information and make data more readily utilizable. By combining information technologies, like AR, GIS and mobile technology, it provides a digital channel for collecting and transmitting data related to work sites through cloud-based storage. Because data is available immediately, it enables quick and accurate decision making, increasing safety and communication management for underground construction.  

Augmenting the Labor Force with Technology 

The construction industry is constantly changing, creating a need for new technology that will help engineers work more efficiently. Projects, these days, are more complex and move faster than ever before. To make matters more challenging, the skilled labor force is currently suffering unprecedented shortages. Combined, these factors, are pushing subsurface engineers to adopt tools that simplify their job. 

For these reasons, the pandemic has sped up the integration of security cameras, drones, automation, and robotics on jobsites. These technologies facilitate remote monitoring of activity on-site, which is a must if social distancing and working from home are going to be part of the new way of doing things.  

Improving Safety with Digital Wearables 

During the pandemic, construction teams have discovered that they can track crew health and safety in real-time by using internet-connected wearables. Small monitoring devices can be hooked on or integrated into hard hats, vests, or work boots to measure social distancing and assist with contact tracing.  

They also adopted wearable devices that link with analytics and visualization tools to create virtual walk-throughs of job sites. Whether they’re handheld, mounted on tripods, attached to helmets, or placed on robots, this type of virtual reality reduces on-site crew numbers while also enhancing data quality. 

Better Planning and Predictions with Virtual Reality  

As with so many activities during the COVID crisis, training for utility mapping jobs moved largely online. Simulation apps, virtual scanning tools, and augmented reality were relied upon to recreate real-life work conditions and troubleshoot on-the-job problems before they actually arose.  

For example, when a 3D media platform developer partnered with application software Autodesk, they created a way for contractors to virtually track projects with 3D walkthroughs. This type of technology application has huge implications for safety on the job because projects can be reviewed virtually in advance, addressing challenges and problems ahead of time.  

What’s to Come for Utility Mapping? 

As engineers and utility crews begin to see the benefits of using these innovative devices, cloud-based platforms, and integrated tools, it will become clearer how other activities need to be digitized as well. Follow SoftDig for ongoing updates and news about developments in our industry.  


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