Advances in Remote Sensing for Utilities Management

Presently, in 2022, what are some prime candidate technological innovations that utility operators, particularly for underground utilities, should we be looking at?

Reading Geoff’s July 19, 2022 blog entry inspired me to think about other geospatial tech innovations for utilities. Several key remote sensing applications have matured to the point that they can substantially improve the ability to resolve some of the “great unknowns” of underground utilities—2022 is a great year to explore these.

When it comes to utilities, the underground is truly the final frontier. Inconsistent records and poor quality as-built surveys (if they were ever performed) cast a pall of uncertainty over effective asset management. Challenges in identifying and mitigating external force threats to infrastructure in utility right of ways lead to operational failures, not mention safety, health, and environmental hazards. Legacy leak detection methods prove costly and can hobble timely and effective operations. What relatively new technologies can help tackle these challenges? But you do not have to make huge investments to leverage these technologies; here are three that are offered as-a-service:

Image source: Teren

Evaluating Force Threats to Underground Pipelines with LiDAR

A proactive data driven approach to evaluating, identifying, and mitigating external force threats to infrastructure in right of ways, be those natural or as a result of human activities, has caught on with energy pipeline operators but can be applied to all manner of utilities. Service providers like Teren, combine utility network, geologic, weather, and land use data to identify areas where such threats are most likely to occur. Then LiDAR campaigns are used to reveal trends in the vulnerable segments, like landslides, subsidence, groundwater infiltration, and more. 

4M Analytics - sample1

Image source: 4M Analytics

Locating Underground Utilities with Aerial Imagery

Telltale signs from satellite, and airborne imaging and LiDAR can fill in the data gaps that poorly mapped—or never-mapped—utilities present. Using a combination of as-is utility records, and topographic and vegetation differential clues from the remote sensing data, firms like 4M Analytics provide a rapid analysis and mapping for areas ranging from individual project sites to entire municipalities. 

Asterra - sample 1Image source: Asterra


Waterline Leak Detection from Space

Use of satellite InSAR (synthetic aperture interferometry) has been growing for change detection for topography and structures. Successive InSAR images are processed to identify changes. With numerous public and private satellite InSAR missions, some in place for over 15 years, this technology can even wind-back-the clock to look at trends over extended periods of time. Now, some of the very same InSAR signals, that can penetrate up to 3m underground, are being used to detect telltale signs of water and sewer leaks.  Asterra (formerly Utilis) has offered this as a service for several years and have helped clients identify likely areas where leaks might have occurred, to help better focus field investigations. Asterra uses AI and machine learning to analyze rebounded L-Band InSAR signals to look for subtle data signature differentials. For instance, potable water and normal ground water have different signal characteristics—this could indicate a water leak. Their service can provide an analysis of the water transmission and distribution network of an entire utility as frequently as every two weeks.



Gavin SchrockGavin Schrock is a licensed surveyor and geospatial technology writer based in the Pacific Northwest. He is also a consulting editor for


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