The product of a partnership between SGN – which manages a natural and green gas network serving some 5.9 million homes and businesses across the south of England and Scotland – and New York-based robotics experts ULC Technologies, the Robotic Roadworks and Excavation System, or RRES, was revealed following three years of development and funding from Ofgem.
A Network Innovation Competition winner in 2018, the system combines advanced robotic arm technology, a mobile platform, and AI guided by a suite of sensors with feedback controls to enable safe and efficient excavation that cuts both physical and carbon footprints.
The all-electric autonomous innovation capable of carrying out an entire end-to-end excavation has been developed in a bid to revolutionise the way in which an estimated annual 2.5 million roadworks are carried out in the UK and reduce both physical and carbon footprints of utility excavations.
Taking robotics into the field
The RRES scans below ground and uses artificial intelligence to create a 3D model of underground pipes, assets and cables before any digging takes place.
Equipped with a concrete cutting chainsaw, the machine can then cut any shape into a road surface by sensing its hardness and adjusting the cutting speed and strength of its blade.
During a dig, the RRES also uses supersonic air nozzles to agitate soil which is then removed via vacuum suction. The tool head uses sensors to detect any asset close to it in a bid to avoid damage and keep field teams safe.
Any piece of road which is cut out can be put back at the end of the operation, helping SGN to reduce waste sent to landfill.
According to SGN’s head of innovation, John Richardson, this marks a significant departure from accurate robotic systems being deployed almost exclusively inside protected and controlled environments.
“RRES takes this technology into the field, mounting a robotic arm on a track to make the system mobile,” he explains. “It will help reduce risks to our engineers while providing them with new skills and state-of-the-art equipment.
“Any industry which needs to scan below ground and carry out deep excavations will benefit from RRES, including other utility companies and the construction and development sector,” he adds. “At SGN, we can potentially reduce the time taken for a typical gas repair job from days to hours, which is great news for our customers, colleagues and the environment.”
Speaking at a pre-trial demonstration at SGN’s former gas holder station in Epsom, the firm’s innovation delivery manager Ollie Machan described the RRES as the “convergence” of technologies such as AI, computing and communication, and reiterated that this process of “agnostic” innovation could be adapted across a broad range of other schemes and sectors.
He added that the project spearheaded SGN’s keyhole strategy to significantly reduce the size of the excavation, traffic management required for roadworks, carbon emissions and delays, and ultimately move away from traditional manual methods to smart, more intelligent work.
Following the initial trial in Surrey, RRES will travel north for its next round of trials in SGN’s network in Scotland later this year.
- Hear Ollie Machan, innovation delivery manager at SGN, discuss innovation in mend and repair technologies at Utility Week Live on 17-18 May 2022. Register here for free
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Optimising field operations is one of the frontline challenges at the heart of Utility Week Live 2022’s live content programme. View the programme.