With highly accurate positioning services, SouthPAN is set to offer Australian utilities a new way of looking at asset management, particularly when it comes to monitoring and surveying physical infrastructure and equipment.
In September 2022, the Federal Government announced a $1.18 billion 19-year contract with Lockheed Martin Australia to develop and operate the Southern Positioning Augmentation Network (SouthPAN). SouthPAN is a Satellite-Based Augmentation System (SBAS) consisting of reference stations, telecommunications infrastructure, computing centres, signal generators and satellites.
When combined, the system will provide highly accurate positioning and navigation services in Australia, New Zealand and surrounding maritime regions. While many industries are expected to benefit from the improved services, what will SouthPAN mean for utilities across Australia when it comes to construction, asset management and drone surveying?
What can SouthPAN do?
The SouthPAN project is a joint collaboration between Geoscience Australia and Toitú Te Whenua Land Information New Zealand. Trials of the SBAS were carried out for various industries between 2017 and 2019 in a test-bed project, assessing the economic, social and environmental benefits.
Geoscience Australia’s Branch Head of Positioning Infrastructure, Dr Martine Woolf, said the SBAS Test-bed project proved that various industries could benefit from more reliable and accurate positioning services because it would increase safety, productivity and innovation.
“The EY SBAS Test-bed Demonstrator report showcases a range of industry case study projects from the test-bed. For example, the report highlights the immediate benefits to the water utilities sector, specifically reducing accidental strikes, reducing delays in underground asset digging and minimising expenditure on survey equipment,” Dr Woolf said.
“Better understanding of the network through services such as those provided by SouthPAN can help with asset maintenance planning, reducing incidents of strikes, and enable faster recovery following force majeure events.” With precise point positioning (PPP), SouthPAN will provide accuracy of as little as 10cm, which is 50 times greater than the current 5-10m accuracy.
Most importantly, the service will not require a mobile phone signal or internet connection, assisting multiple industries, including agriculture, maritime shipments, utilities and more in remote settings.
SouthPAN will be able to provide PPP by utilising distributed ground stations and uplink facilities to monitor signals broadcasted by Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) satellites. By comparing each station’s location with data from multiple satellites, SouthPAN positioning services will be able to pinpoint movement and locations in less than six seconds.
Under the new contract, Lockheed Martin Australia will help establish a network of GNSS infrastructure, including letting SouthPAN use its Second-Generation SBAS, to augment signals from the US’s GPS and the European Union’s Galileo system.
Technology for a wide range of industries
With this new satellite infrastructure network, SouthPAN is set to assist a variety of industries in daily operations. Dr Woolf said the greater positioning accuracy will bring widespread benefits across agriculture, shipping, resources and utility sectors.
“SouthPAN has a wide range of uses ranging from vehicle guidance and tracking maritime shipments to enabling navigation for drones and other unmanned vehicles,” Dr Woolf said.
“Independent economic analysis estimates the economic benefits of SouthPAN to be more than $6 billion over 30 years – it’s a real game changer for our economy.” Dr Woolf said SouthPAN will boost economic productivity, particularly in regional Australia.
“The agriculture industry can use the service for things like precision spraying of crops, yield mapping, controlled traffic farming, inter-row seeding, and livestock management. The big winners will be our agricultural regions outside of south-eastern Australia that don’t have mobile phone or internet coverage,” Dr Woolf said.
“SouthPAN will also increase safety and reduce accidents in the transport, aviation and maritime sectors. “On our roads, it can support cooperative intelligent transport systems as well as future industries such as autonomous vehicles. On our seas, the service improves safety of navigation, especially in congested waters.
“And in our skies, from 2028, SouthPAN will be capable of safety of life services, enabling aircraft like the Royal Flying Doctor Service to land safely and more reliably in adverse weather conditions, improving accessibility and safety, particularly in regional and remote areas.
“SouthPAN is also supporting efficiencies and increasing worker safety in the resources sector. On mine and construction sites it can be used for things like smart geo-fencing technologies that accurately identify the location of workers operating vehicles and heavy machinery, and alert if they come into close proximity.”
Positioning for utilities
For utilities, SouthPAN’s highly accurate services will be able to assist network operators, government agencies and other organisations with planning, construction and asset management.
“As the provider of electricity, telecommunications, gas and water to the Australian people, the utilities sector relies on positioning technology to efficiently build and manage infrastructure and equipment,” Dr Woolf said. Despite the technology being in development, utilities are already turning to Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to provide data on the location, status and functionality of physical assets.
“Location-based services as a market are anticipated to grow exponentially with this new technology. I’m sure we’ll see new and innovative uses in the utilities sector to come. Importantly, these technologies will be usable anytime and anywhere throughout Australia and New Zealand,” Dr Woolf said.
Monitoring underground assets
One particular benefit that SouthPAN is expected to provide for utilities is the ability to detect underground assets and avoid accidental strikes when digging or excavating. “Detecting and working with underground assets, such as pipes and cables, can be challenging,” Dr Woolf said.
“With improved positioning technology from SouthPAN, the sector can display underground assets faster and more accurately, reducing the number of accidental strikes. “SouthPAN-enabled GNSS devices can be used in combination with augmented reality applications. Prior knowledge of the underground assets is needed to support these applications.”
Industry trials testing SouthPAN’s SBAS determined that utilities across New South Wales are already relying on GIS to monitor assets. Making PPP more widely available will enable network operators to accurately map out underground assets.
Being able to locate underground assets — such as pipes and cables — will mean a reduction in costs associated with repairing accidental damage. Not to mention, during planning stages, it will enable site works or construction to begin earlier without having to worry about costly or time- consuming surveying equipment.
By setting up an advanced positioning system using international satellites, SouthPAN offers Australian utilities the technology to use drones for surveying physical sites and assets.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones function using a global navigation system known as trilateration, where an object’s location is determined by measuring distance and time using multiple satellites to give a precise position. This allows for autonomous flying since waypoints can be set to create a flightpath for the drone and then return to its station.
For utilities, drones can provide a more efficient and safer method to survey assets, especially ones in remote locations. Dr Woolf said SouthPAN will play a key role in the development of cutting-edge drone equipment and services for utilities and other industries.
“SouthPAN can support UAVs by providing wide area precise positioning services, enabling new applications such as safe flights beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), and supporting corridors for safe navigation of drones,” Dr Woolf said.
“This is known as UAV traffic management (UTM). SouthPAN will enable increased use of drones in utilities, for example undertaking linear surveys such as on pipelines and railways corridors.”
Looking towards the future
SouthPAN is expected to be operational with Safety-of-Life certification in both Australia and New Zealand from 2028 and will provide positioning services for 19 years, with the chance to extend if necessary.
For now, industries can access SouthPAN’s accurate positioning services with the early Open Services. These early services are intended for any users that need better positioning who do not rely on Safety-of-Life certified services. Capabilities using data obtained from stand-alone GPS and Galileo can include heavy vehicle automation, precision agriculture applications and personnel safety on construction sites.
“We are still in the early days of what SouthPAN has to offer the future of digital infrastructure. What we do know is that it will pave the way for innovation,” Dr Woolf said. “SouthPAN enables a digital footprint for the utility sector, with precise point positioning supporting a comprehensive view of the infrastructure network.
“There are great opportunities to integrate SouthPAN with a range of technologies to deliver efficiency, automation and cost reduction in all aspects of industry applications.”