New BT facility to study animal-inspired excavation techniques


BT has said it aims to put the UK at the forefront of a ‘new era’ of robotic development for telecoms and civil engineering.

It comes as the firm officially opens its new 5,000 sq ft robotics research facility in Suffolk.

The centre will play a ‘key role’ in developing innovative robotics solutions to speed the deployment of essential infrastructure.

The firm will work alongside the UK’s higher education sector and other utilities to trial the robotics which BT said are applicable to telecoms and civil engineering challenges worldwide.

The lab is the first dedicated telecoms civil engineering robotics test facility in the UK, and will aim to find solutions to installing fibre network infrastructure without incurring the cost and delays associated with digging up roads and pavements.

New robotic locomotion and excavation techniques inspired by digging and burrowing mammals and insects, coupled with the latest technologies developed for space exploration, aerospace and medical applications are showing ‘real promise’ for delivering so-called ‘trenchless’ infrastructure deployment, BT said.

It added that magnetic, climbing and cable-traversing robotic techniques are also ‘maturing’, enabling proof-of-concept trials on wireless tower and overhead cable poles.

It is expected by the firm that the test lab will play an important role in supporting its fibre programme, as well as facilitating collaboration with other utilities such as power and water companies as they roll out and update their underground and overhead networks.

The site is described as a ‘unique’ indoor facility which will enable research teams to trial the latest innovations in robotics within a variety of test zones. The facility emulates three different types of environments in which testing can be carried out:

  • Underground environment: The facility includes several test beds that can be filled with different soil and aggregate types to replicate the terrain that creates challenges for laying ducts and fibre across the country. The compaction, moisture content and stone content can all be controlled within these environments to test the ability of robots to dig pathways for ducts or direct-in-ground fibre. The test beds will also provide demanding environments for fibre sensing and robotics steering tests.
  • In-duct environments: Pipe stands are used at the facility to construct duct runs, using specially manufactured transparent versions of BT ducts. This enables replication of the scenarios whereby a duct collapses or becomes blocked with silt build up.
  • Overhead environments: The facility holds a full height telegraph pole, with platform access to allow different pole-top fixtures to be fitted. This creates opportunities to test robots that can lift tools, equipment or cable to the top of a pole. Cables can be run to another pole to provide a single 35m span for development of cable-car-like devices for pulling in new cables or dealing with tree canopies that could damage an existing cable. A series of shorter posts provides a ‘pole-transit’ testbed for developing other cable-travelling devices.

Professor Tim Whitley, BT’s MD of research, said, “The UK is a hotbed of civil engineering innovation, with a thriving university ecosystem and an enviable robotics startup sector. Our aim is to bring those players together in a dedicated facility to develop solutions that make the UK a world leader in telecoms civil engineering robotics.

“The lab will provide a hub for the creation of solutions to real world challenges and pioneering applications of robots, reinforcing the UK’s position at the heart of research and innovation into advanced technologies.”