Sid Shaikh, Head of Robotics at hyperTunnel, delves into the potential for robotics to build critical underground infrastructure in the cities of the future.

As urban populations continue to surge around the world, cities are under immense pressure to expand infrastructure such as housing, transportation and utilities to accommodate more people

The extremely limited availability of surface land is a major obstacle to these expansion efforts – going upwards with taller and taller buildings can only account for so much growth before becoming impractical and counterproductive.

Many, therefore, are looking beneath the surface for answers. Here, underground construction and tunnelling represents one of the few remaining viable options for cities to build out their infrastructure footprints without encroaching further into undeveloped suburban and rural areas. 

The global tunnelling industry is already enormous. The secotor was worth nearly $171 billion in 2021. By 2027, intensifying demands for subterranean spaces means the market will likely exceed $280 billion.

For well over a century though, tunnelling practices have relied on largely the same traditional approaches. Tunnel boring machines are an incredible feat of engineering but require a crew of workers in a hazardous process prone to logistical challenges and project risks.

But this could finally be about to change. A pioneering new method of underground construction is emerging. This new method relies on robotics to remove the need for humans to enter high-risk environments. 

How can robots revolutionise underground construction?

hyperTunnel has devised a process that represents a drastic change to the way in which we work in the ground to treat, monitor and repair.

Harnessing the power of an information rich digital twin, hyperTunnel uses an innovative approach comprising swarm robotics. This facilitates a ‘work everywhere at the same time’ construction philosophy in contrast to techniques that see slow progress from working in just one small area. 

The first step of the process involves installing a simple grid of HDPE pipes in the ground. The grid provides access along the entire length of the structure for the swarm of hundreds or thousands of semi-autonomous robots. The robots move throughout the grid and facilitate an additive manufacturing process to build the structure, somewhat akin to 3D-printing, using the geology to support the build process.

The first level of the technology, called hyperDeploy, improves the geology that is already there. Then the next technology, hyperCast, due for release during 2025, replaces the geology with new material creating the most precise lining that has ever been built.  

An AI and machine learning-integrated digital twin monitors and manages the processes and activities. 

Closer to reality than you think

To some, this may come across as otherworldly or even some form of Sci-Fi creation. However, the critical point is that all the technologies used are already proven in various and similar contexts. 

Look at how AI-powered drones have become a fixture for putting on light shows in recent years. Once viewed as a unique and innovative way to fixate audiences at events, drone light shows have morphed into a rapidly growing industry in their own right. The retort of the day “they will never replace fireworks” seems quite silly to us just five years later.

Working in groups, the drones are equipped with LED lights used to create stunning visual displays – these are precisely choreographed using AI and automation to perform intricate aerial formations, patterns and animations.

Using a swarm of automated robots, hyperTunnel works in much the same way underground. It is, therefore, not such a radical departure from reality. On the contrary, if utilised effectively, swarm robotic construction methods can deliver a range of significant benefits, not least around productivity and the environment.   

An economical alternative 

Testing has progressed to the cusp of commercialisation and deployment in the real world. In Wales, for example, hyperTunnel is building a full-scale underpass at the Global Centre of Rail Excellence (GCRE). 

Transport is just one sector which stands to benefit, not just from new construction but also in how existing Victorian era rail tunnels, road tunnels and even runways can be worked on and maintained by robotics without having to close down the site to users. 

The mining industry also heavily relies on a network of tunnels and underground structures to access and navigate sites, presenting opportunities to employ the new method during the excavation process itself. 

Indeed, the use cases and applications stretch far beyond building tunnels and underpasses from scratch. Swarm robotics can be utilised for a range of repair, reinforcement and remediation projects including slope stabilisation, dam restoration and hazardous waste containment. In the realm of water management, for instance, it could help mitigate water ingress issues in existing tunnels, bridges, culverts and other structures by facilitating improved control of water flows during leakages or flooding events.

Utility providers, too, could leverage this technology to more effectively manage their vast, complex networks of underground tunnels and passageways that deliver crucial services. 

At a broader level, underground construction powered by swarm robotics has the potential to spur economic growth by accelerating infrastructure development timelines and reducing costs. This approach provides new solutions for major national and municipal challenges and could transform the way we design and develop our cities. At the same time, it can drive job creation and investment in the high-value skills necessary for the future of construction.

A sustainable alternative 

What’s more, this construction method is significantly more sustainable than current tunnelling techniques. 

It reduces energy and water consumption, air pollution, waste generation and the amount of concrete required to build key underground structures. 

The method also uses raw materials more efficiently. Builders can easily reuse excavated soilor remove it far from city centres. Further, the method minimises the impact on protected environments and disruptions to local communities by keeping construction sites compact without the need for heavy vehicle traffic. 

And beyond lowering environmental footprints, hyperTunnel facilitates sustainable underground infrastructure such as tidal energy tunnels and affordable transit solutions that reduce journey times. It can also extend the lifecycle of existing infrastructure, improve safety and contribute to critical energy industries such as nuclear power.

Underground construction has, despite its paramount importance to the development of critical infrastructure, been fraught with practical, environmental and safety related challenges. 

Now, the development of AI-enabled swarm robotics is removing many of these obstacles. By doing the heavy lifting in every sense of the term, robots are ready to revolutionise how we build and maintain structures beneath the surface.

  • Infrastructure & Cloud

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