Gas distribution company SGN has teamed up with New York robotics firm ULC Technologies to develop the Robotic Roadworks & Excavation System, or RRES.
Following three years of development and funding from energy regulator Ofgem, RRES is an all-electric autonomous robot that can carry out the entire end-to-end excavation process for roadworks.
The robot was unveiled on 28th April ahead of its first trial in the UK – on SGN’s gas network in Epsom, Surrey.
SGN head of innovation John Richardson said: “Typically, accurate robotic systems are found inside protected and controlled environments. RRES takes this technology into the field, mounting a robotic arm on a track to make the system mobile. 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. 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.”
ULC Technologies director of infrastructure automation Ali Asmari said: “Using a robotic arm on a mobile platform in an excavation environment will allow RRES to improve efficiency and worker safety by automating parts of the operation. The precision and repeatability of the robotic arm will provide highly accurate data to locate below ground assets and will help to identify the most strategic location to cut a keyhole excavation.”
Transport for London work assessment manager Lisa Hatt was impressed with what she saw at the demonstration. “I think there will be a real respect for the technology moving away from the more traditional methods,” she said. “We’re always looking for ways in which we can reduce the impact of roadworks, noise and pollution and I think RRES really encompasses all of that.”
RRES can scan below ground using artificial intelligence to map underground pipes and cables before any digging takes place, to avoid utility strikes.
Equipped with a concrete cutting chainsaw, RRES can cut any shape into a road surface. It does this by sensing the hardness of the surface and adjusting the cutting speed and strength of the chainsaw. SGN has been developing a keyhole strategy for excavations in recent years. Keyhole excavations allow SGN to carry out operations from above ground using specialist tooling, reducing the size of the excavation needed. The piece of road which is cut out can then be put back into the road at the end of the operation, helping SGN to reduce waste sent to landfill.
It also uses supersonic air nozzles to agitate the soil, which is then removed with vacuum suction. The tool head uses sensors to detect any asset close to it avoiding damage and keeping field teams safe.
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.