Modernizing Gas Leak Survey - Part 4: Digital Breadcrumb Trails

05-03-2021 02:45 PM
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By Tom DeWitte and Tom Coolidge

Part 4 of 4

Every gas organization has their share of horror stories about their leak survey program. Most evolve around a field technician who spent the day doing something other than performing the assigned Leak Survey. With the legacy method of paper maps and markers, it was extremely easy for a field technician to violate the gas organization’s trust and spend their time at a donut shop, relaxing, and marking up the map to show completion of a leak survey they never performed.

To combat this abuse, some gas organizations would place tags on a random number of gas meters. The field technician would then be required to collect all tags and present them with the completed leak survey documentation.  But even this approach does not guarantee that the pipe system was correctly and completely traversed. It only guarantees that the technician visited the meters where the tags were placed.

So, what is a gas organization to do?

The answer is digital breadcrumb trails.

In this fourth and final blog of this series, we will look at how ArcGIS’s Tracking capabilities are enabling gas organizations to confidently know that their gas pipe network is being surveyed. And, that the survey was performed in a manner that is efficient, accurate, and secure.

10 - What are Digital Breadcrumbs

Breadcumb trails are at their simplest the marking of the path you have already traversed. For most of us this term originated in the old Grimm Brothers fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. In that story, the children used breadcrumbs to mark their path as they journeyed through the woods.

Today we have mobile smart devices with built-in GPS capabilities.  These devices, when coupled with the correct software, such as ArcGIS, can create digital points instead of breadcrumbs. These digital points do much more than simply denote a location where you have been.  They also record when the digital point was placed, and who placed it.

Within ArcGIS, we refer to this advanced form of digital breadcrumbs as Tracks. These Tracks enhance the information gathered in the digital breadcrumb. In addition to documenting where, when, and who, the tracks also record, how fast, course direction, and device battery status. This information can be presented as points or connected into lines to create a path.


Accurate Documentation of Location

Specifying where you are is a relative term. You can state that you live on the planet Earth, and in relation to the rest of the Milky Way, you would be specifying what would be considered a very accurate description of your location. When it comes to the needs of documenting the path traversed by the leak survey field technician, a more precise description of location is required. But, how much more precise?

Is knowing that you are on the correct side of the street good enough? That would be a positional horizontal accuracy of about +/- 10 feet (+/- 3 meters). If you need to differentiate between two gas pipes running parallel on the same side of the street, then a positional horizontal accuracy of +/- 1 foot (+/- 0.3 meter) would be preferred.

How does this compare with the horizontal accuracy with the GPS card in most mobile devices?  For most mobile devices +/- 15 feet (+/- 5 meters) is what you will get in an open field with no obstructions. In town, near large buildings, or under large trees, the accuracy is further degraded. The good news here is that there is a rapidly growing number of low-cost GPS receivers which can enhance the positional accuracy of your mobile device.  Many are Bluetooth enabled, and are very easy to connect to your mobile device.

Regardless of whether you use the GPS card internal to the mobile device or enhance it with a Bluetooth connected GPS receiver, the same ArcGIS mobile software will use the provided information to record tracks where you have been.

Securely Captured and Stored

As noted earlier, a core problem with legacy methods of denoting location is that they were easy to cheat. So, what can be done to prevent someone from spoofing their location?

The first step is to remove the responsibility of denoting location from the field technician. Let the software automatically capture and store the location.  This has two benefits. It removes the ability for someone to tamper with the location information. Secondly, it improves the efficiency of the field technician by removing a documentation task from the field activity.


By having a software application such as ArcGIS on the mobile device, the where, when, who, how fast, and direction is also automatically captured and stored in a format that is not accessible to field users to manipulate.

The tracks captured by ArcGIS are providing gas organizations with the enhanced information they are looking for to document who, when, and where the leak survey was performed. The capturing of the tracks is automatic and secure.  The ArcGIS software even continues to capture and store the tracks while the device is disconnected from the network. 

As more gas organizations deploy mobile applications capable of digital breadcrumbs, don’t be surprised if a donut shop or two notices a decline in sales.

Additional Information

If you missed our previous blog articles on improving Leak Survey, here are the links to those articles. Those three blog articles explained the first 9 traits of a modernized Leak Survey program.. 

Part 1: Modernizing Leak Survey

Part 2: Automating Management of Inspection Dates

Part 3: Making Audits Easier

PLEASE NOTE: The postings on this site are our own and don’t necessarily represent Esri’s position, strategies, or opinions.

About the Author
Technical Lead for Natural Gas Industry at Esri