The machine looks like a cross between a carpet cleaner and a lawnmower. But nothing's quite what it appears to be on the surface.
Take the earth, for example. By pushing the machine over a vacant lot, a strip of road or an earthen field, Mark Gramlich can discover all types of laid pipes hidden below, from clay to plastic to metal or concrete. He can locate fiber optic lines, power lines, boulders and rocks, abandoned foundations.
Created by ERA Technology, the surface-penetrating radar device can be used for a number of tasks, according to Dana Gramlich, Mark's wife and president of their Earthview Technology Incorporated. The ERA machine is the only type of its kind certified by the Federal Communications Commission in the United States.
For pleasure, the Grimlachs have gone treasure hunting. ("But not in the right place," he laments with a smile.) He once scanned a cemetery and did find the coffins below.
Professionally, the Riverton-based couple have taken the machine they've been using for several months even more places, for even more reasons.
They can find buried drums of hazardous waste. They've been hired to help find pipes and power lines on road construction projects in Murray and Sandy. West Jordan City got them to locate manholes that had been covered over.
In some parts of the world, the technology is being used to find land mines.
Not long ago, the Gramlichs used it to check water tables, which show up well on the scan.
They also figured out why a street in Murray collapsed after having holes bored by a company that was just doing its job.
The ERA machine's applications include structural, geophysical, law enforcement, archeological, environmental, utilities and military, the use for which it was first developed.
It uses pulse radar, powered by a battery pack that lasts about three hours before it has to be recharged. After special training, a technician can look at the screen and see "anomalies," including objects like plastic that usually can't be seen.
That's important to construction companies, environmentalists and others because it means hazards can be seen before crews dig trenches or bore.
The radar process is quite simple. It sends pulses of electromagnetic energy into a surface, like a roadbed. The radar pulses go through the ground (or wall, or whatever) and are reflected back. The radar measures how fast it took for the pulse to travel to and from the target, indicating how deeply it lies. That length of time is determined in part by the "dielectric" properties of the material.
That doesn't mean those bouncing radars arrive everywhere at the same time. In fact, that depends on what kind of material is being scanned. Soil types matter: Sandy soil, for instance, is easy to penetrate with the radar. Salt on the other hand is nearly impossible. Clay lies somewhere in between. You can see up to 20 feet below the surface in sand, but with clay you may only see a foot or two.
On commercial projects, radar equipment users mark up a blueprint, so that it will be easy to tell where exactly they might have located something.
The process can move as fast as a person can walk. But in areas where more things are underground and it's harder to sort out, Mark Grimlach said it might take him a full day to do half an intersection.
The images come up on a screen and a trained expert can read them as he walks the machine. But it also has a floppy drive and other computer capability so the information collected can be stored on computer or printed out.
The denser the material being scanned, the darker it appears on the screen. Interpreting what you're seeing takes a little time until you've become used to it.
It's most commonly used, at least here, to prevent the need for interruption created by excavation and construction work. Construction delays can be very costly, Gramlich said. And who wants to sit in a dark, powerless house because someone down the road was digging a trench? Knowing what's below the surface is the best way to avoid expensive blackouts and even lawsuits.
Some utility companies have started charging construction companies for "time lost" and repair costs that result from their digging activities. That can add up "to serious money," Dana Grimlach said.
The technology isn't cheap. The machines sell for close to $70,000. The cost of having a scan done is about $200 an hour, "but you can cover a lot of ground in an hour," Mark Gramlich said.