Swarms of Robots 3D Printing Tunnels

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It sounds like a sci-fi movie from the 1960s, but it’s a sci-fi reality in the 21st century. Swarms of robots creating an underground “hive” using 3D printing technology, resulting in a tunnel without first using a boring machine, blasting, or digging.

While Elon Musk’s Boring Co., is drilling massive holes underground and then lining them to create a tunnel, hyperTunnel first builds the tunnel, then digs the hole. A significant break from tradition, the hyperTunnel method does not create the hole by pushing through the ground with a boring machine or drill and blast. Instead, it 3D-prints the tunnel inside the ground, working to a digital twin created using completely new levels of data generated by hyperTunnel’s digital ground surveying techniques.

Engineers are demonstrating how swarms of hyperBot robots can transport cartridges of construction chemicals through HDD (horizontal directional drilling) bore pipes to 3D-print a tunnel in the ground. This scalable and modular approach will make tunnel building, repair, enlargement, and monitoring, faster, cheaper, safer, more environment-friendly, and involve much less project risk than current tunnelling methods.

The concept, which is currently under advanced testing at various sites in the UK, is supported by a suite of integrated technology approaches. These include digital twins and digital underground surveying, supported by AI (artificial intelligence) and VR (virtual reality), the majority of which have been proven in other sectors.

According to the company, the advantages of hyperTunnel’s form of underground construction are that nobody goes underground until the tunnel is built, so it is far safer, and because the process is much faster than traditional methods, there is much lower cost.

Using horizontal directional drilling, a series of bore pipes are drilled to form the outline of the tunnel. A number of semi-autonomous robots move throughout the inside of the bores to create the structural shell of the tunnel using swarming techniques. After the geology within the shell is disrupted, spoil is removed with a remote-controlled excavation shield. A continuous concrete layer can then be sprayed onto the shell and the construction completed, if required, with custom linings. Secondary bore pipes are used to house monitoring technologies which improve long-term tunnel maintenance and safety.

The technology and approach are getting attention in Europe. The EIC (European Innovation Council), Europe’s flagship innovation program to identify, develop, and scale up breakthrough technologies and game-changing innovations, has selected hyperTunnel to receive a substantial financial award under its EIC Accelerator scheme. Funding of €1.88 million will be used to complete the development of hyperTunnel’s advanced swarm robotics underground construction platform.

In addition, hyperTunnel has received a financial investment from VINCI Construction, a global contractor in concessions, energy, and construction. The deal further strengthens hyperTunnel’s connections with VINCI’s technical departments. hyperTunnel recently joined VINCI’s innovation platform Leonard as a member of its start-up accelerator program, Catalyst.

The new funding will significantly accelerate hyperTunnel’s development of its swarm robotics platform and hyperBot fleet so that it is fully completed and tested (Technology Readiness Level 8) in around two years. 

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