Video | Roadworks robot on trial

Southern Gas Networks (SGN) is trialling a new robotic roadworks system in Epsom, Surrey.

SGN teamed up with New York-based robotics company ULC Technologies to develop the robot, which it claims is a world first.

It took three years of development, with funding from energy regulator Ofgem, to create the Robotic Roadworks Excavation System (RRES).

End-to-end excavation

The innovation makes the type of robotic arm that might be found in a factory mobile by attaching it to an all-electric tracked unit.

RRES can carry out the entire end-to-end excavation process.

The robot has a concrete cutting chainsaw, allowing it to 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. This ‘keyhole’ approach reduces the size of the excavation needed. The piece of road which the robot cuts out can then be replaced at the end of the operation.

Underground scanning

SGN also claims that since RRES is autonomous and can carry out the entire excavation process, it has a much smaller physical and carbon footprint. Utility excavations typically require multiple vehicles, heavy equipment and numerous teams.

RRES is also capable of scanning below ground to map underground pipes before any digging takes place. It also uses supersonic air nozzles to agitate the soil, which it then removes with vacuum suction. The tool head uses sensors to detect any asset nearby to avoid damage and keep field teams safe.

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. That includes 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. This is great news for our customers, colleagues and the environment.”

ULC technologies director of infrastructure automation and AI, Ali Asmari, added: “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. This will help to identify the most strategic location to cut a keyhole excavation.”

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