The group, which includes Tunnel Engineering Services (UK) Ltd (TES), i3D robotics (i3D), the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), Costain, and VVB Engineering, has produced the prototype Automated Tunnel Robotic Installation System (ATRIS) which can autonomously select brackets, locate where they need to be mounted along a tunnel wall, and install them.

The companies say the development could “revolutionise” tunnel services installation.

“The automated solution can improve on-site health and safety by reducing the risks associated with manual labour at the tunnel work face, for example, working at height in confined spaces, and hand-arm vibration experienced by workers during installation,” the consortium says.

The prototype is currently working in a 4m diameter tunnel.

Once fully-developed, ATRIS is expected to increase productivity by 40%, reduce installation costs for new mechanical and electrical systems by 30%, and cut construction plant movements by 40%, which will reduce embodied carbon.

The 22-month project, partly funded by Innovate UK’s Smart grant, was led by TES, which developed the initial concept in partnership with the consortium. Using its expertise in robotics and automation, MTC spearheaded the design and manufacture of the robot’s end effectors. i3D developed visualisation software for precise navigation, while Costain and VVB provided industry knowledge and expertise in tunnelling and fit-out requirements.

TES design and project manager Alan Worsley said the need for automation in traditionally manual M&E fit-out techniques had led the company to develop ATRIS and make it commercially viable.

“We believe the system can offer a safer, more cost-effective and sustainable solution for future infrastructure projects,” he said.

MTC chief technologist for the built environment Steve Nesbitt said labour challenges over the past few years had driven greater interest in using robots, beyond manufacturing and logistics.

“By contributing our expertise to this project, we are paving the way for construction companies to adopt technology for greater control and structuring of on-site works, making infrastructure delivery safer, more productive, and more sustainable,” he said.

i3D lead engineer Dr Jon Storey said ATRIS moved the industry closer to the goal of automating tunnel infrastructure installation.

“The use of stereo vision with machine learning and robotics to place bolts precisely on a curved surface is an unprecedented achievement, with potential applications beyond the construction sector, such as nuclear decommissioning and defence,” he said.

Lee Bateson, mechanical and engineering manager and robotics lead at Costain, highlighted the benefits for clients. 

“Teaching the robots to learn seemingly simple tasks – such as how to avoid cross-threading the screws that go into the sockets – has been hugely fulfilling,” he said. “Whether it’s carbon reduction, increasing productivity or improving workforce health and safety, this is transformative technology that will have enormous benefits for the customers that we build tunnels for.”

Nicholas Beedle, group operations director at VVB Engineering, emphasised the cost and safety benefits. 

“Tunnel works historically are expensive to build and maintain, and in the higher risk bracket for safety during construction and operation. The development of the robotic AI solution is a step towards solving both of these industry challenges,” he said.