Open Innovation Challenges

Underground Infrastructure

Open Challenge: Advancing Subsurface Mapping Technologies

Underground Infrastructure
Deadline for concept summaries: September 16, 2022

Sponsored by

pg&e logo


In an effort to underground approximately 10,000 miles of power lines in high fire threat districts, PG&E is looking for ways to increase the efficiency and decrease the cost of undergrounding. Subsurface mappings are used as a critical input to underground route design during the planning phase of every project.  Existing technology that performs these mappings is limited by a lack of accuracy, high costs, manual nature, and tendency to cause project delays.

Desired properties

  • Ability to identify and distinguish between various subsurface obstacles, including geological conditions and existing utilities that may not be marked and located properly by other subsurface operators (e.g., communications cables, fluids, etc.)
  • Ability to geo-locate obstructions with a high degree of fidelity
  • Reduction in manual labor necessary to either collect or interpret subsurface reading data


Category 1: Advancing Subsurface Mapping Technologies

Problem statement

Though significant advances have been made in subsurface mapping technology, existing methods remain unable to provide a highly accurate and comprehensive view of subsurface conditions. Even cutting-edge technologies, such as ground penetrating radar (GPR), that are able to more accurately detect variations in subsurface conditions require significant human effort to interpret results, rendering the technology cost-prohibitive for widespread use. Further, mapping still requires additional site visits for physical surveys that can entail separate permitting processes, unnecessary manual labor, and added time. The need for improved subsurface mapping technology is imperative because imperfect information gathered from existing technology can lead to change orders in the field that increase costs and delays or result in costly dig-ins that disrupt existing underground infrastructure. Although it is the statutory responsibility of other subsurface operators to properly mark and locate their respective underground facilities, by better avoidance of potential improperly marked and located facilities of others, PG&E can eliminate conflict-related construction delays and costs. New technologies could provide key upfront planning and design process input in order to accelerate timelines in the early phases of a project and avoid delays once construction has begun. 

Possible approaches

Any solutions that address issues with accurate and holistic data collection, interpretation, and storage are welcome. Possible approaches include drone-mounted surveying equipment to reduce the need for time-consuming labor, look ahead technology on drilling rigs, 3D subsurface mapping to identify existing underground obstacles and infrastructure, seismic refraction technologies, and machine learning assisted interpretation, among many others.

Industrywide Market GapPotential Solution Category
Significant human effort is required to
interpret results for current subsurface
mapping technologies, and this adds
burdensome costs to projects
Machine learning GPR interpretation to
reduce required human labor.
Most mapping still requires physical site
visits for surveys that often require
separate permitting processes,
unnecessary manual labor, and added time
Drone-mounted technology that does
not require in-person site visits.
Current technology is lacking accuracy and
results in costly change orders in the field,
delays, and unnecessary disruption to
existing underground infrastructure
Technologies that have the ability to
provide a more accurate 3D map of
subsurface structures, including more
precise location.
Known approaches not of interest

Procedural / management solutions are not of interest.

Key success criteria


  • Demonstrated improvement over current state-of-the-art technology
  • Ability to provide accurate readings across a wide range of subsurface materials (e.g., not constrained to ferrous materials only)
  • Ability to provide accurate readings up to 15 ft of depth


  • Commercially deployable within 3 years
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Undergrounding construction unavoidably disturbs soil at the site, generating excess spoils that must be properly disposed of. These spoils must be handled according to specific requirements and often must be hauled off-site for processing, remediation, or disposal. Moving soils back and forth for processing and disposal between off-site locations that are often far from dig sites requires time and resources that could be spent elsewhere. This process is particularly costly in cases where distrubed soil contains hazardous materials.


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