World’s first underground structure built by robots

By Larry StewartNovember 09, 2022

HyperTunnel horizontal boring The HyperTunnel process starts with horizontal directional drills pushing cental index bores, and adding bores that define the underground structure’s shape. (Image: HKA)

HyperTunnel says its new automated construction method is designed to build tunnels more than ten times faster and at half the cost of conventional methods. Because nobody goes underground until the tunnel is built, it is said to be a safer method.

A suite of technologies, including digital twins and digital underground surveying, supported by artificial intelligence and virtual reality is integrated into the design process.

HyperTunnel hyperBot robot Hundreds or thousands of “hyperBot” robots start work inside the bores, surveying the tunnel and installing access points through the pipe liner into the geology. (Image: HKA)

Horizontal directional drills are crucial equipment to start the tunnel. It starts with a cental index bore and then bores that define the structure’s shape are added. Semi-autonomous robots are sent into the lined bores to build the tunnel’s structural shell, deploying an additive manufacturing process, which uses the same principle as 3D printing. Hundreds or thousands of these “hyperBot” robots work inside the pipes using swarm construction methods. They do everthing from surveying the bores to installing access points through the pipe, into the geology.

The bots mix and deploy construction composite material into the ground. A CNC robot arm carves chambers in the geology

HyperBots' CNC robot arms carve chambers in the geology that can be filled with material to cast blocks in place, creating a permanent, continuous structure. (Image: HKA)

that can be filled with construction material that allow blocks to be cast side-by-side to create a permanent, continuous structure. Once the structure is complete, the spoil inside it is excavated, and the tunnel walls can be prepared for final use.  

The HyperTunnel process has been used as part of a Network Rail project which involved investigating the technologies that are key to low-disruption tunnel repairs for the UK’s regional railway infrastructure.

Steve Jordan, co-CEO and co-founder of HyperTunnel, said, “To unveil our first large-scale demonstration tunnel is a big step, not only for HyperTunnel, but for the tunnelling and construction industries which are eagerly anticipating the readiness of our approach to use, as appropriate, in their global projects.

“While using robots exclusively to build underground structures is dramatically different, the contributing technologies, such as digital twins, robotics, 3D printing and digital underground surveying, supported by AI and VR, are all well-proven in other industries. In fact, the HyperTunnel in-situ method is all about de-risking construction projects.”

Earlier this year, HyperTunnel received funding of €1.88 million (about $1.89 million) from the European Innovation Council (EIC) Accelerator scheme, Europe’s flagship innovation programme, in addition to receiving an investment from Vinci Construction.

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