How do you measure more than 3,000 miles of water pipes buried in the desert? The Las Vegas Valley Water District looks to the skies for help.

In supplying water to more than 1.5 million people, the LVVWD operates 3,600 miles of pipes and tens of thousands of valves, hydrants, meters and other equipment. To maintain and manage it, the water district uses a database of more than 100,000 digital engineering records and drawings - a document store that grows steadily each year as new construction proliferates in the Las Vegas Valley.

A year ago, the LVVWD began looking at technologies to collect more accurate data from the field, as well as better ways for its employees in the field to use its data centre's assets. The new network is a sort of mash-up: It melds cellular, wireless broadband network connectivity, GPS satellite data collection, and geographic information system (GIS) mapping and location tracking technologies. The results are clear: More work completed in less time with no increase in staff.

Wireless cleared the backlog
"There was a three-year backlog that was just piling up" in terms of creating new blueprints, and verifying the accuracy of existing maps and engineering documents, says Jonathan Pickus, manager of the water district's GIS Division.

"The whole organisation was relying on our data, and it wasn't very good at the time," he says. "We had to figure out a way to automate all of our processes, so that data is put into systems correctly. Our goal was to enter data once, then propagate that to all of our products."

These products include internally developed applications for verifying pipeline blueprints and GIS-based mapping software that lets work crews quickly find exact locations of underground pipes and valves. Paper schematics and rolled-up blueprints are going away.

Field inspectors use Trimble Navigation surveying gear, which pinpoints and measures the district's assets via GPS satellites. Data collected is pushed to base stations deployed throughout the Las Vegas area. These devices, each tied down to a fixed location, accept data from collectors and relay measurements back to the main office. Data is sent among the base collectors and base stations on private-band AM/FM radio waves. The water district is also moving some of its base stations to IP/cellular technology that will allow for fewer base station points. Base stations communicate directly to the main office via IP-over-cellular.

To collect the field data, an Apache Web server sits in the district's Internet DMZ, listening for the field base stations on certain ports.

"No data actually sits on this server," Pickus says. "If the server gets compromised, we don't lose any data."

Redlining, minus the red pen
In the past, inspectors working with construction companies would have to verify water-main and piping blueprints by measuring the physical structures in the field, then drawing corrections on a printed map in red pen, or redlining. Often, inspectors had only one chance at measuring and getting the corrections on paper before pipes were buried or sealed behind concrete.

"That takes the inspectors several hours to do, and often there are mistakes," Pickus says. "By the time the pipes are buried, those mistakes get into the database."

Engineers and inspectors in the field now do redlining without drawing a line on paper. The GPS surveying devices measure the distance and locations of pipes, fittings and valves. Three thousand to 4,000 measurements per month are collected and sent to the water district's data center, where data is stored in an Oracle database.

The GIS database also generates as-built documents, which are the official records kept by the district and the county on construction projects. It sometimes took weeks to collect redlined documents from inspectors, reenter the changes into software and print the as-builts, Pickus says. Now CAD engineers generate most of the as-builts automatically in an hour, with some small cleanups.

Large pipes inside the data center and LAN also help engineers and designers work faster. A Gigabit Ethernet network, built on Foundry Networks switches, connects CAD engineers to the GIS database and other servers where large maps, blueprints and other image files are generated and accessed from workstations.

GIS on the road
The LVVWD also is combining its GIS data with its mapping software system, its site-inspection ticket request system and others. The result is similar to popular Web-based mash-ups that combine database, GIS data and mapping software (such as marrying a directory of pizza places with Google Maps).

Most construction projects in the Las Vegas Valley require a call to the water district to ensure that a backhoe blade doesn't cut a water main. Previously, construction companies called into an automated phone system, which generated e-mail messages detailing requests and their locations. District dispatchers printed these e-mails and put them in folders, which were picked up by inspectors who went out to mark up water main locations.

Using Oracle database tools and some of the water district's own code, programmers have written a Java-based application that ties together the e-mail tickets and the master GIS database. Instead of picking up folders of printed e-mails, inspectors use laptops in the field with Verizon EV-DO wireless broadband cards. Over a VPN connection, inspectors access the construction ticket-request application, which shows all of the day's tickets on a map; details of each job are available with a mouse click. Repair crews and other field workers have similar applications for accessing pipe and valve location data along with work-order data in one view.

"This will tell you exactly where to go to find a buried valve," Pickus says.

Pickus says this system let inspectors process 60,000 tickets last year; previously, the same six- to seven-person team was handling around 40,000 tickets per year.