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GPS—and RFID—Mark the Spot

Studies show that passive RFID tags can speed up disaster recovery by cutting the time it takes to find buried utilities.
By Mark Roberti
Aug 16, 2013

After Hurricane Sandy ravaged the northeast in October 2012, many businesses and residents in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York were without power for days or weeks. Part of the problem: The recovery crews searching for access to underground electrical switches and other equipment were hampered by the fact that streets near the shore were buried under mounds of sand and detritus from destroyed stores and homes.

Research being conducted at the Geospatial Research and Applications Center (GRAC) at Auburn University, in Alabama, suggests that a combination of GPS, radio frequency identification and magnetic locators could greatly reduce the amount of time required to find manhole covers, junction boxes, fire hydrants and other gear and utilities after a storm.

Photo: Geospatial Research and Applications Center / Auburn University
"About four years ago, we received a grant from the Economic Development Administration to mark assets near the beaches in the Gulf region, so they could be found after a storm," says Chetan S. Sankar, a professor at Auburn and founder of the GRAC. "We sent about 100 students to the region and recorded the GPS coordinates for some 12,000 elements."

But when a team from the GRAC returned to the Gulf to find the objects using GPS coordinates, locating them took a lot of time, even when there was no storm debris covering them. "GPS is just not accurate enough for practical purposes for locating buried elements," Sankar says.

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