In 2018, we won our fourth Network Innovation Competition (NIC) with a bid to develop a Robotic Roadworks & Excavation System (RRES) which will improve existing methods of excavation, repair and maintenance operations performed daily at SGN and the other Gas Distribution Networks (GDN).
All utilities face an ongoing challenge in safely and efficiently managing excavation activities. This will continue for the life of the assets as they are pushed to return their maximum value for the GB customer.
RRES aims to reduce the required excavation size, labour costs, and equipment while making the work safer. The project will automate the excavation process in both rural (transmission) and urban (distribution) areas using artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced robots.
Utility excavations are necessary to inspect and maintain buried infrastructure, but are disruptive, labour-intensive and can lead to unintentional damage to neighbouring plant. Reducing the requirement for extensive safe digging practices could significantly reduce both the social cost of works and associated emissions.
RRES aims to address three main problems associated with utility excavations on both the Distribution and the transmission infrastructure:
- Operating Costs
Excavation for both distribution and transmission works require multiple teams from project start to completion. A single excavation represents a major investment of time, labour and money including field and office/support personnel, numerous vehicles, tools and equipment and all associated permit costs. Rural excavation is particularly costly due to the requirement to hand dig and the inclusion of extensive safety precautions, while operating near the transmission pipeline.
RRES looks to automate the excavation process, creating a much smaller excavation when compared to traditional methods. Costs will reduce as the operation will require less: traffic management, labour, material and lane rental charges.
- Disruption and CO2e
Utility excavations often require a large physical footprint to accommodate multiple vehicles, heavy equipment and numerous teams. These work sites can create a public nuisance by causing major disruption to traffic flow and obstructing access to local businesses and residences.
Compared to traditional excavation methods, RRES will have a much smaller physical and carbon footprint. Not only will this will reduce our carbon dioxide emission, but also reduce traffic and pedestrian delays to both business and public users of the highway.
- Excavation Damage
Historical mapping methods for electricity, water, sewer, communication and gas infrastructure along with limited locating technologies can lead to accidental impacts during excavation, causing service disruptions, serious damage, loss of property and sometimes fatalities. Cable strikes represent a real and serious hazard due to the risk of electrocution, fire or explosion.
RRES utilises the soft touch tool, coupled with the ability to sense buried utilities and objects. This will enable a redundant safety feature in the excavation operation which will improve safety to our operatives and stakeholders.
The goal of the project is to develop and test a RRES prototype system that can demonstrate automation of the excavation and reinstatement process and the installation of a Universal Access Fitting (UAF).
The system will fuse advanced robotic arm technology with a mobile platform, and will be controlled by AI using a suite of sensors and feedback controls to enable autonomous, safe and efficient mains excavation.
Once exposed, the RRES will attach a newly developed universal access fitting to the main to enable a set of inspection and maintenance operations to be performed. This next generation system will enable urban and large rural excavation to be performed faster and at a lower cost, and with greater safety than is currently possible using even the most advanced methods available today.
Robotic arm: A system will be developed for the robotic arm to facilitate quick connections and disconnections with a range of end effectors. It is expected to include receptacles for inpidual tools, motion planning software, and the selection or development of a robotic arm-to-tool interface.
Mobile platform: A commercially available mobile platform will be selected to facilitate movement of the RRES around a job site and deployment of the system to remote areas. It is expected that the platform will be a treaded vehicle with a wide base and high torque delivery.
Computing system: A computing system will be developed for the RRES to handle various forms of data input, process information, facilitate communication between subsystems, and orchestrate the different operations performed by the system.
Below ground sensing system: The RRES will employ a combination of sensors and other hardware to detect and avoid a wide range of buried assets and to identify the target asset.
Excavation tooling: The excavation tooling will be developed with a focus on distribution system excavation activities. Once the initial design has been successfully tested and demonstrated to enable fast, accurate and damage free excavation in distribution piping systems, the tool will be tested in transmission environments.
Tool changing system: A system will be developed for the robotic arm to facilitate quick connects and disconnects with a range of end effectors.
Fitting installation tooling: A UAF will be developed for use on distribution pipes (<7 bar). The fitting will be designed to simplify robotic installation and facilitate a wide range of typical inspection and repair activities.
Support equipment: Support equipment will be required to operate the RRES and to monitor excavation activities will be selected, procured and integrated for testing.
The RRES project will yield potentially significant financial, safety, environmental and social benefits by combining modern automation and robotic technologies to solve a daily challenge in the utility and construction sectors. Benefits are cross transferable to a number of utility, infrastructure and construction sectors.
The benefits, learning, and improvements include:
- Smaller excavations will improve efficiency and reduce our carbon footprint, subsequently decreasing disruption to the public
- Operating costs will be reduced as operations will require less traffic management, lane rental charges and material
- By utilising the soft touch tool coupled with the ability to sense buried utilities and objects, it will enable a redundant safety feature in the excavation operation. This will improve safety to our operatives and stakeholders
- By removing the operatives from the immediate excavation area, the safety risk is lowered
- Open market for expanding future inspection, maintenance, and repair operations;
- Robotic automation of works will remove operator from immediate excavation site making it safer for operatives
At SGN, we pride ourselves on our customer focus. Our philosophy of putting the customer first will be at the heart of this project.
If you want to discuss RRES and share your views, we want to hear from you. Contact us at any of the following:
Write to: RRES team, SGN Axis House, 5 Lonehead Drive, Edinburgh, EH28 8TG