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Can we ever rely on robots to do adequate Utility Searching?

Can we ever rely on robots to do adequate Utility Searching?

In my third and final blog of this series on utility information, I am taking a look into the future to consider the role of AI and/or automation and if it has a place in what is a typically complex arena. 

I have spent well over a decade now looking at the automation of Utility Searching and an abundance of technologies in an attempt to find a way of delivering utility information to an enquirer at a lower cost.

The utility record search report and utility information management market is now full of a number of technology based methodologies that deliver insights to the many thousands of entities that are interested in the presence of underground plant.

I have looked at Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technologies of all types examining all the different formats. I have looked at line following algorithms and a number of other quite sophisticated transposition technologies. Hopefully I can shed some light on why I think that forcing utilities on to an automated system hasn’t happened in England. As well as why nobody has taken the leap of building the technology and why a huge number of users of utility records don’t rely on the automated systems that do exist in the UK.

Automation is a great idea! Contractors who rush to site on fault work would be able to comply with the NRSWA (1). Clients and Designers would find it easier and cheaper to get the information that should in my view be part of the pre contract Health & Safety pack under the CDM (2) regulations. The information is also required before breaking the ground according to HSG47 (3) prior to further utility discovery work. This is something the development market has wanted for a very long time. Instant access to plans at a very low cost would help everybody, and on the face of it technology or software could be the answer.

The sad fact is that the variety of formats and commercial pressures on utility companies make convergence of the data very difficult and expensive. They have the protection of critical infrastructure to think about as well. But there are other reasons why technology and automation are not the answer.

The problem is that the maps and boundaries given to everybody are imperfect, shapefiles and boundary/ area maps are only really the utility’s best guess of the area that they are responsible for. 

I have lost count of the number of times, particularly in the water industry, where no company will take responsibility for plant that ends up being theirs as well as them having denied the plant or area is theirs. Dealing with this is something that can only be dealt with by a human. 

What is more is that if the initial decision is to rely on the utility company’s plan or an arbitrary buffer, it can be extremely dangerous. Suppliers of utility information all over the country are making search no search decisions on these bases. 

Allow me to give you a gas example; a regional gas company with a major trunk line to a refinery many miles away from the boundary on their area map. How can that be discovered by technology (making a black and white or yes/ no decision) or using an area of interest map? It can only be discovered by a human having the training and lateral thought that a refinery might mean that further examination of what could be underground is required.

Sites and areas of special interest or requiring protection of critical infrastructure do not have plant shown. In some cases, not all, these areas are marked on the utility companies plans with special markings. Technology alone cannot decide that further research needs to be done in that area, and maybe communication between the enquirer and the utility company is required to determine the next course of action. 

In a lot of cases this information can be obtained with a little discussion – something that is not possible for AI let alone its inability to identify the area with missing information.

When it comes to Independent Connections Providers (ICP’s); Utilities and Industrial Power Services (UIP’s); Independent Gas Transporters (IGT’s) and Independent Distribution Network Operators (IDNO’s) and other company connections, plans must be checked for the existing regional company and ensure that entire areas are covered and identify the markings that indicate that a 3rd party connection exists. 

These can only really be discovered using a human examination of plans against other mapping to indicate that there should be plant present and whose plant it is. This kind of examination is something that cannot be done by technology and can only be done by a human who has been adequately trained in ensuring a search is complete.

The truth is that technology is only part of the answer; a human will, in my view, always be required. Apogee will never be reliant on technology with these things. It’s  much more complicated than that and less black and white than technology can decipher.  

Our technology focuses on the client ordering and service experience and it will stay that way until the vagaries in the quality of information held and released by utility companies improves. There is no substitute for allowing enough time for a thorough and professional search. For those that have the time and are operating a considered process that is compliant with all the rules and regulations they need to allow 10 working days for the task. Something that both HSG47 and PAS128 make clear.

Finally, it is very important that clients understand that in accordance with HSG47 and PAS 128(4) a Utility Search (QL – D) although a prerequisite for each level of survey a utility search report is only part of the jigsaw. We have a CDM risk assessment that delivers a pathway through PAS 128 that helps clients put together a robust, site-specific methodology for compliance.

The Apogee Utility Search Report is offered by Groundsure, built around a service that is never totally reliant on technology and underpinned by decisions that should only be made by a trained human. For more information and resources to understand how utilities could affect site development for your client, go to, call us on 01273 257 755 or email us at

Credits, References and Further Reading.

Jeremy Haigh is Managing Director of Apogee Property & Utility Consultants having spent 25 years in the utility industry. A graduate of Westminster University with a degree in Estate Management, he started his career in Wireless Network Roll out acquisition, moved into fibre network utility consents, claims and information management with a particular interest in the evolving Geospatial systems management of information. He took part in the BSi PAS 128 steering group with a particular QL – D specialism. He is an expert in utility discovery and consulting for developers and their development supply chain.

  1.  NRSWA – The New Road & Streetworks Act 1991.
  2. CDM – The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015

  1. HSG47 –  Whole document. Sections 61, 64 and 125 on contractor reporting.
  2. PAS 128 – Specification for underground utility detection, verification and location.



May 19, 2024

Jeremy Haigh