The futuristic vision of drones, artificial intelligence, and other smart technology building and maintaining our critical infrastructure is closer than many think. Already, many in the transportation and utility sector employ those very technologies in daily operations to ensure efficiency and safety.

As proponents of innovation, Aii hopes to see technology adopted not only in practice but in law and regulation in areas critical to public safety. Among the top areas of focus are underground utilities. Damage to underground pipelines, telecommunications lines, and other facilities occurred over half a million times last year, and for 2019 alone, cost the U.S. over $30 billion.

We have already begun seeing individuals, companies, and some states incorporate the use of technology to reduce the number and cost of these excavation incidents. Some of them use Internet-based devices to collaborate and share information among excavators, locators, and utility operators. Others look to use artificial intelligence and machine learning to crunch data to improve the accuracy and precision of mapping and locating of hazardous materials under our feet.

Aii was recently cited as a resource in compiling a report from the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissions (NARUC) entitled: Artificial Intelligence for Natural Gas Utilities: A Primer. There, we shed light on some ongoing and emerging practices. Among the ways natural gas in particular is becoming safer is through programs to protect pipelines from excavation incidents.

One area that may become more widely used in damage prevention efforts is an improve white-lining process. Already the law in many states, white-lining is the practice of pre-marking a dig site with white paint, flags, or stakes. Virtual white-lining takes this process online, by using GPS coordinates to mark a virtual map with an overhead view of the dig site. This may help give locators a more accurate view of the proposed excavation, but can also begin to build up virtual archives of sites, where the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning can come into play.

Elsewhere in the damage prevention space, “National Grid analyzes each 811 ticket using the “Urbint Lens for Damage Prevention” – a software platform for risk-based damage prevention using predictive artificial intelligence – to identify excavations with the highest risk for damage,” according to the latest Damage Information Reporting Tool (DIRT) Report from the Common Ground Alliance.

Drones to view and inspect work and excavation sites are common. They are used by the rail industry, pipeline operators, and utilities in urban and rural settings. Artificial intelligence is allowing operators to better understand data, predict outcomes, and promote safety. As technology improves and becomes more accessible, it seems likely more industries will incorporate these cost-saving, safety-promoting practices.

To read the NARUC report, click here.

To read our 2020 Damage Prevention Report Card, click here.


Written by Benjamin Dierker, Director of Public Policy


The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.