The Dig of the Future

This blog series Technology Highlight has explored many of the ways that investments in innovation lead to better outcomes for infrastructure and public safety. When technology advances, it often becomes cheaper, more widely available and accessible, and helps facilitate faster, safer, and greener projects. This is especially true in the damage prevention space.

Damage prevention is the first –and arguably most important– step in all of infrastructure. It is foundational because in order to build any infrastructure, we must first break ground. When clearing land, digging out material, laying down pipe, or establishing foundations, excavators and construction crews risk striking the underground infrastructure already in place. These pipes, wires, cables, and more are the unseen powerhouses keeping modern life moving.

The use of technology in the damage prevention process is of critical importance. It helps locators ‘see’ underground, and presents information to excavators to clarify the presence and location of underground utilities at a proposed dig site. More than this, technology makes the entire process faster, more efficient, more precise, more thorough, and above all, safer. That is why Congress and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) have highlighted the criticality of improving technology in the damage prevention process. It is also why the Common Ground Alliance (CGA) continues to maintain best practices guides filled with technology and techniques for using it, as well as regularly publishing annual Technology Reports.

In its most recent 2021 Technology Report, CGA outlines seven steps for “an idealized excavation in the year 2030.” This dig of the future is a dynamic catalogue of the best available techniques for safe digging, including many of the technologies we have highlighted over the technology series. Presented as a futuristic look at a dig years from now, our technology highlight series helps shed light on ways we can achieve many of these steps today without significant cost or new innovation needing to be thought up. 

1. Excavator enters an electronic one call ticket using electronic white-lining.


2. Facility operators/locators respond by marking the site on time and providing an Enhanced Positive Response (EPR). The EPR includes a unique digital file (with a password or QR code) linked to the one call ticket number. The file contains information such as maps/coordinates, photographs, special instructions, etc.


3. The file is compatible with a set of hardware/software and can be uploaded to a screen in the excavating machine cab. The hardware/software are integrated with sensors on the bucket that warn the operator when they are within a certain distance of the buried line. The sensors and buried lines are connected by Bluetooth, RFID, marker balls, GPS satellites, etc. It can be set to automatically shut down the machine or freeze the controls if needed (e.g., if the excavating equipment gets too close to a critical facility).


4. The software geofences the perimeter of the work site as defined by the one call ticket. It alerts the machine operator if they encroach within a certain distance of a buried facility or of the work area perimeter. It can be set to send these alerts to facility owners/locators and/or excavating company management. It can be set to generate reminders to renew a ticket if an expiration date is approaching.


5. The software is compatible with an inexpensive drone that excavating companies can buy or rent, or locators/utilities can provide. The EPR digital file can be uploaded to the drone. The drone has cameras and hovers over the work area. From a remote location, the facility operator/locator and/or excavating company management can monitor what the drone sees and communicate with the machine operator. The backhoe operator can initiate communication in the other direction with voice-activated controls.


6. If any unmarked, mismarked, or abandoned facilities are found during the project, the drone maps them via integrated GPR and/or takes photos. That information is provided back to the facility operators who can verify it and update their files as needed.


7. Ideally all affected facility operators participate in the EPR. The software overlays the information from all the participating facility operators.

The first step in any dig – today or in the future – is to notify the state or regional One-Call center about plans for a proposed excavation. This notification can be through telephone by dialing 811 or by logging into the state’s website. Today, a web ticket can already be entered in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and in most, excavators can check the status of their ticket while they wait for locators to complete their work. By using electronic white-lining, excavators can enter a virtual box around the proposed excavation site from their computer using a GoogleMaps or other bird’s eye view. This helps ensure that locators and utility operators know ahead of time where digging will occur and spare resources by locators. This is in existence today and is available but underutilized technology nationwide.

The next step is to utilize Enhanced Positive Response (EPR), which is practiced today but not adopted systemically. Proven to reduced damage by up to 67 percent, EPR is a critical information sharing tool. It is the number one recommendation for safe digging by PHMSA and a best practice by CGA. It provides excavators with digital photographs, enhanced ticket information, facility maps, and other information that is commonly collected but not regularly shared today. This ensures that excavators are breaking ground with more information than mere spray paint markings or colored flags on site. It also guards against miscommunication or lack of clarity caused by fading marks, weather disruptions, mis-markings, and other common issues.

Steps three and four take a more visionary approach, tying existing data, software, and techniques to idealized technologies not yet implemented on site or at scale. Presently, the EPR data can be accessed easily through mobile devices on site, as well as computers in the cab of an excavator or at the One-Call center. By utilizing artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), stakeholders in the process can crunch data on damages, near misses, and regular locates to improve data and precision about the location of underground facilities. Working together, these systems can then alert operators to near miss and caution zone excavations. The reality of the bluetooth-enabled infrastructure-to-excavator-machinery communication is intriguing and is likely achievable today in pilot programing. It is not unlike the way infrastructure communicates between and among trains, rail, stations, and satellites for positive train control.

Step five and six implement additional oversight on the project by deploying drones. These are useful for everything from simply providing an overhead view to capturing aerial photography, even mapping, and more. Armed with AI and software capable of capturing and assessing EPR data, the drone can help operators in real time, whether they are assisting the locate process, relaying information to the excavator, or even identifying damage, leaks, or surveying site information for emergency responders and utility owners.

Step seven helps bring the dig to a safe conclusion, summarizing that EPR should be used at scale by all stakeholders in the damage prevention process, whether large or small. The importance of this is that it helps establish base line data so that future digs in similar areas or implicating the same facilities can be overlaid, allowing AI, ML, and human personnel at utilities, One-Call centers, or other stakeholders to reconcile issues, refine data, and improve maps.

With all of this technology either existing or being just on the cusp of scaleability, the most important step today is investment in new technology and bringing it into real live practice on locate and excavation jobs. Whether this is supported by grants from PHMSA or state governments or simply private investment, the data shows that more technology strategically deployed throughout the process helps avoid damage, provides value, and makes the job safer and more efficient. That is the essential goal foundational to the damage prevention industry. And with damage prevention being at the foundation of infrastructure itself, the necessary course of action nationwide must be to incorporate new and existing technology proven to reduce damage and improve information sharing into the damage prevention process.

From the first step to a completed job, the dig of the future can be accomplished today. The remaining question is how best to achieve this at scale, nationwide, to safeguard our existing infrastructure, protect excavators and the community, and ensure environmental and economic strains do not arise from excavation work. 



Written by Benjamin Dierker, Director of Public Policy


Interested in our technology highlight series? Look back at the entire series and see all the ways technology is making damage prevention safer.


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.