Mapping what lies beneath: Using ground-penetrating radar to find the pipelines

Pittsburghers are famous for giving directions that go something like: “Go down to where the Isaly’s used to be and turn right.”

Mark Smith says outdated maps of underground pipelines buried decades ago are just as useless. They reference buildings, trees and other landmarks that disappeared long ago. That makes locating them difficult and expensive.

So, trying to find a century-old pipeline when new construction is being done on the property where it is located is often a hit or miss proposition, said Mr. Smith, chairman and CEO of Geospatial Corp.

The Buffalo Township company is trying to bring more precision to maps of natural gas pipelines, water lines and other underground infrastructure.

Relying on ground-penetrating radar — technology similar to that used by MRI machines — and other equipment, the company’s GeoUnderground software composes a 3-D map of underground pipelines. Digital data from the maps precisely locates leaks and determines how serious they are. The Google Cloud-based data can be uploaded to the cell phones of field personnel, engineers and others.

Mr. Smith said the software is so easy to use “that we sometimes joke and call it GIS for dummies.”

“I believe there is an opportunity to create [underground] what Google created above ground,” he said.

He expects federal legislation enacted last year that imposed stricter requirements for mapping underground energy pipelines and managing data related to them will be a big boost for Geospatial. Filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission indicate the company, which employs 10, could use a lift.

A $1.2 million loss last year and a $532,936 loss in the first half of this year brought Geospatial’s accumulated deficit to $42.4 million. 

The company collected $769,671 in sales last year, up from $89,700 the prior year. But sales in the first half of this year fell 34 percent to $291,135.

Filings also indicate: Mr. Smith and CFO Thomas Oxenreiter provided loans, since repaid, to keep operations going; that Geospatial defaulted on a $1.3 million loan provided by its largest shareholder; and that Mr. Smith has been providing the company’s bucolic headquarters — a home converted to office space — rent-free since April 2016.

Court records indicate that in January, the company settled a 2012 lawsuit brought by six employees who claimed they were owed more than $400,000 in back wages, unreimbursed expenses and stock.

“As any technology company, we have had a few bumps in the road,” Mr. Smith said.

The 63-year-old CEO, wearing a blue plaid shirt and blue jeans, is a Notre Dame University dropout who went into the home remodeling business.

In 1989, he founded Underground Solutions, an underground pipe repair business. Mr. Smith retired from managing Underground Solutions daily operations in 2005. He said he owned a small stake in the company last year when it was sold for $85 million to Aegion, a St. Louis concern that maintains and protects infrastructure.

Mr. Smith started Geospatial in 2007 after acquiring the rights to use GIS (geographic information system) technology developed by a Belgian company.

He said part of the company’s slow development can be attributed to having to educate customers about the benefits. Several studies have helped, including reports by Purdue University and Penn State University’s Pennsylvania Transportation Institute. The two schools documented the significant savings that can be realized in highway projects if road builders know going in where the underground infrastructure is.

The federal legislation enacted last year addresses thousands of miles of natural gas gathering lines from wells that companies will be required to maintain better data on. 

Municipalities, universities, hospitals and other potential customers also are beginning to understand the benefits of knowing more about their underground infrastructure, according to Mr. Smith. He said one recent project involved helping a company with pipelines that run beneath a river. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was dredging the river and had to know where the pipelines were, he said.

Mr. Smith said the $1.3 million loan from Geospatial’s biggest shareholder is in the process of being extended. He is confident enough about the company’s future to expect that it will be able to leave its Buffalo Township home for a more convenient location in Pittsburgh by the first quarter of next year.

“We’ve been struggling. We think we’re over that hump,” Mr. Smith said.

Len Boselovic: or 412-263-1941.

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