Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Wednesday 22/3/2006I love underground technology, from schooldays when I stood in call boxes dialling the numbers in between the international dialling codes to see what happened to showing friends on a roof in Brooklyn how to make a water tower into an efficient stealth broadcast antenna. But now there's some seriously legit underground tech on the boil.

Wednesday 22/3/2006

I love underground technology, from schooldays when I stood in call boxes dialling the numbers in between the international dialling codes to see what happened to showing friends on a roof in Brooklyn how to make a water tower into an efficient stealth broadcast antenna.

But now there's some seriously legit underground tech on the boil. The universities of Leeds and Nottingham want to create a countrywide map of the pipes, cables and caverns below the surface of the United Kingdom. The idea is to ease the task of maintenance and renewal: the cost and inconvenience of having someone dig up your phone lines when they're trying to fix the gas is huge and growing. It might also save some serious embarrassment: not so long ago, the Norwegian air traffic control system went down because of a JCB through a fibre optic cable connecting control central to the radars and transmitters.

This should never happen: alongside one fibre belonging to one telco, the Norwegians had invested in a back-up parallel circuit rented from a different telco and travelling over quite a different route. Unfortunately one telco subsequently bought the other and as part of the programme of efficiency that always follows an acquisition spotted that it now had two identical circuits doing what looked like the same job. It promptly reprogrammed its network equipment to route both channels over one fibre and shut the other one down. A central database saying what everything is and why might just have helped.

There are security concerns: after all, huge amounts of national infrastructure are squirreled away beneath the highways and byways, and letting just anyone get hold of the map might lead to some unwanted ingenuity being deployed ten feet below. But you have to make the information available to be useful, and it's not generally possible or desirable to security check everyone in a hard hat. In the days of IRA activity that BT was concerned about keeping the details of its countrywide network secret from the terrorists. There was much fussing about what to do with the information, until someone pointed out that as the whole lot had been dug into the ground by a company called Murphy everyone might as well relax and worry about something else.

There's a lot that could be done with a nationwide database of underground conduits. My favourite idea is to combine the water and sewerage distribution systems with a form of physical packet switching: take a waterproof container with the goods in, program the address into an RFID tag built into it, and flush it down the loo. Within the sewers, scanners spot the RFID, scoops remove it automatically and a series of intelligent valves route it through the pipes to its destination. The thing ends up bobbing in the destination cistern: clearly there are a few small practical details to consider, but the theory's sound.

Only one thing counts against the planned mapping project — its name. Vista…

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