Swarm robots 3D-print tunnel structure

HyperTunnel's Peak XV project
HyperTunnel’s Peak XV, 3D-printed by swarm robots
Swarm construction robots have 3D-printed an underground structure for what is claimed to be the first time.

Tunnelling and underground construction technology start-up, HyperTunnel, built the structure at its R&D facility in the North Hampshire Downs. HyperTunnel claims its automated construction method is designed to build tunnels more than 10 times faster of conventional methods. And at half the cost.

Using swarm construction methods according to a digital twin of the tunnel, a fleet of ‘hyperBot’ robots enters the ground via an arch of HDPE pipes. The robots then 3D-print the tunnel shell by deploying construction material directly into the ground.

The 6m-long, 2m-high and 2m-wide Peak XV ‘pedestrian-scale’ tunnel was delivered as part of a project for Network Rail. It was revealed at the British Tunnelling Society Conference & Exhibition last week (11-12 October).

The approach is significantly friendlier to the environment and will use sustainable materials such as low-carbon concrete, according to HyperTunnel. With no human needing to enter the structure during construction, the method could mark a step-change for safety in the tunnelling industry.

Investing in disruptive technology

Under the R&D contract with Network Rail, HyperTunnel’s technology will be trialled for the low-disruption maintenance and improvement of the UK’s regional railway infrastructure. This includes approximately 650 Victorian tunnels.

David Castlo, network technical head (mining and tunnels) at Network Rail, said: “Our large portfolio of Victorian tunnels requires increasing levels of work to meet the needs of the railway network.  However, we want to reduce the level of disruption to our passengers. So we are constantly searching for new approaches to enlarge or repair tunnels that reduce the time they will be closed to trains. Peak XV moves us a step closer to that goal and, crucially, with a method that reduces workforce safety risk.”

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 also for tunnelling and construction.

“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 nearly €1.9m from the European Innovation Council Accelerator scheme. HyperTunnel has also received backing from Vinci.

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