Transforming tunnel construction with innovative robotic technology

Posted by Derek Mason

11th April 2023

Picture credit: Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

Imagine being able to tunnel into the ground without any people needing to work beneath the surface. Going further than that, imagine if you could construct and line the tunnel without workers needing to enter the structure. If you’ve been following developments in artificial intelligence and robotics, this probably won’t sound too far-fetched.

The Basingstoke-based start-up, hyperTunnel, is working with the University of Birmingham on collaborative research, technology projects and joint publications, among other things, while they develop innovative new products, processes and systems to speed up construction and reduce costs. These processes include developing the tunnelling concept outlined above.

hyperTunnel began when its founders, Steve Jordan and Jeremy Hammond, came to the conclusion that current tunnelling methods were prohibitively expensive. They discovered that technology from other sectors such as mining, surveying, boring and 3D printing could be transferred to tunnelling.

Their engineering team is from a wide variety of sectors including advanced materials, oil and gas, motorsport, aerospace and geoscience. The concept they’re working on involves using artificial intelligence, machine learning and swarm robotics in tunnel construction.

After creating a central index bore, semi-autonomous robots act as a swarm and move to different locations within the bore to carry out their functions. For example, robot arms can carve precise chambers which are then filled with construction materials to create the tunnel walls, block by block. As the tunnel is created, the spoil is removed by autonomous vehicles.

The process is estimated to be ten times faster than standard construction methods, at potentially half the cost. Safety is also improved, as no workers need to enter the structure during construction. And the efficiencies of this approach will no doubt create benefits from an environmental perspective too.

These tunnels can also be made “smart” with sensors in key areas, so that the structure can easily be monitored and maintained throughout its lifetime.

Working with the University of Birmingham, which is home to the National Buried Infrastructure Facility (NBIF) – part of the UK Collaboratorium for Research on Infrastructure and Cities (UKCRIC) – seems like a natural fit for this innovative start-up. It’ll be interesting to see the results of their collaboration, and the subsequent impact on transport infrastructure.

No doubt there will be detractors and also worries about the impact on jobs in the sector when these processes start to be adopted. But this looks like it will take time to fully develop and implement. Plus, given that we have shortages in a lot of key roles throughout construction and engineering, I don’t think there is much to lose from taking a few innovative steps forward in this area.

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