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Building Pipelines: The Importance of GIS/GNSS Data Collection

Natural gas utility companies install thousands of miles of pipeline each year and have found keeping a database of their buried assets is a crucial element for renewal,  maintenance and locating needs. The data collection of pipeline assets requires speed, accuracy, and the ability to capture locations and information in difficult conditions. The data supports utility operations and asset management and can be shared with other utilities and public agencies. Utilities can utilize the data to find pipe in the field quickly to identify potential problems.

When new gas pipelines are installed, field engineers record all attributions on all pipeline components including the pipe segments, connections, asset type, pressure tolerance and personnel. Details down to individual welds are captured and entered into a GIS database. In many cases, the data must be recorded immediately before a pipeline is buried and information unrecoverable. The process of positioning and asset recording must be easy, fast, accurate and completely reliable.

Pipes being laid into the ground by a large digger


With over 30 years of expertise working with gas utility companies, one of the USA's top civil and municipal engineering firms, Suburban Consulting Engineers, Inc., (SCE), has built an Enhanced GIS System that uses GIS technologies to support the collection of detailed asset information required by gas utilities and regulatory agencies. To capture the locations, attributes and associated geotagged images, SCE uses Trimble R2 GNSS receivers with TDC600 handheld data collectors running Esri ArcGIS Collector software. In some areas, SCE accesses correction data via a real-time GNSS network built on Trimble VRS technology.

To meet requirements for traceability, SCE developed high-efficiency techniques to collect live as-builts of their client’s pipelines. The work has culminated in a method that meets Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) requirements. As part of its process, SCE uses the Esri GIS platform to provide a consistent geospatial framework to record the detailed information. SCE creates a custom library of forms for each gas utility client for data collection that enables Field Engineers to use standard workflows while capturing asset information.

Pipe showing information handwritten on it

Pipe showing information handwritten on it

Information handwritten on the pipes is photographed for capture and transfer to digital records.

Pipeline laid in trench in the ground

Accurate locations help new gas lines to safely coexist with other underground utilities.

With the Trimble R2 providing positional accuracy down to centimeter-level, SCE is confident in the location data. By using the large capacity data storage in the TDC600, they can maintain large GIS databases and store information and images. For each project, the collected data is transitioned to an Esri geodatabase where Quality Assurance (QA) is performed to test for connectivity between pipeline sections and consistent attribution. The resulting data is fully traceable, verifiable and provides a complete record for the life of the assets in accordance with the PHMSA regulations.

As a result, SCE clients no longer need as many of their own GIS specialists to model or translate data. Each client is able to see a full digital twin of their pipeline, updated digitally weekly and customized to be consistent with each clients’ existing schema and formats.


One of SCE’s client, Jacob McGlincy, GIS Supervisor at Southern Company Gas, recognizes the benefits of using the Trimble solution with GIS. As he was wrapping up final inspections and commissioning activities at the end of a new pipeline project, McGlincy was asked to find all of the pipe segments installed on a transmission pipeline project that were manufactured on a specific day, had a specific type of coating, and had a field bend. “It took just five minutes to query our data and identify seven pipe segments from more than 1,100 that had been installed—together with their exact locations in the field.” McGlincy said. The seven segments were verified and the pipeline was successfully commissioned on time. “Without the real-time access to the detailed data, this research could have taken days or weeks with many unsuccessful exploratory digs to find and verify these segments,” he said.

Man holding a survey pole with receiver and data collector attached beside powerpole

An SCE individual collects data on existing features for ruse in design and construction planning.

Pipeline above ground assets

After pipes are buried, post-construction measurements capture surface equipment to provide a complete record of the new gas assets.

Using the Trimble solution, SCE has reduced manhours by being efficient in the data collection process during pipeline construction, with just one day needed to load the Enhanced GIS data into their clients’ GIS. Previously, this data could not have been captured with the same degree of completeness or precision. According to SCE’s Georgia Office Manager, Marc Sheridan, there is more to come. “This isn’t the end result,” Sheridan said. “We started this data collection system seven years ago and we’re still advancing it. What started as simple pipeline feature collection is now growing and moving to material collection. Inspection reports are going digital and we’re working on inspections and close-out packages to provide complete pipeline documentation.”

"We chose Trimble based on the dependability of knowing what we were getting. The field equipment was designed by field people, and it shows in terms of durability and ease of use." - Marc Sheridan