hyperTunnel reveals the world’s first robot-built tunnel

20 October 2022

UK infratech start-up hyperTunnel has revealed the world’s first tunnel built entirely by robots.

The ‘Peak XV’ tunnel, built at the company’s R&D facility in Hampshire, is part of a research project for Network Rail. The 6m-long, 2m-high, 2m-wide pedestrian-scale tunnel was built using an automated construction method designed to make tunnel construction 10 times faster, more sustainable and half the cost of conventional methods.

Using swarm construction methods according to a digital twin of the tunnel, a fleet of hyperBot robots enters the ground via an arch of HDPE pipes. Once inside, the robots 3D-print the tunnel shell by deploying construction material directly into the ground.

The Network Rail project has been demonstrating the hyperTunnel process, investigating the technologies that are key to low-disruption tunnel repairs for the UK’s regional railway infrastructure, which includes approximately 650 Victorian-age tunnels.

Network Rail’s network technical head (mining and tunnels), David Castlo, said the organisation’s large portfolio of Victorian tunnels required increasing amounts of work.

“However, we want to reduce the level of disruption to our passengers so we are constantly searching for new approaches to enlarging or repairing tunnels that reduce the length of time a tunnel will be closed to trains. Peak XV moves us a step closer to that goal and, crucially, with a method that reduces workforce safety risk,” he said.

hyperTunnel co-CEO and co-founder Steve Jordan said unveiling the company’s first large-scale demonstration tunnel was a big step, not only for hyperTunnel, but for the tunnelling and construction industries “which are eagerly anticipating the readiness of our approach to use, as appropriate, in their global projects”.

“While using robots exclusively to build underground structures is dramatically different, the contributing technologies, such as digital twins, robotics, 3D printing and digital underground surveying, supported by AI and VR, are all well-proven in other industries. In fact, the hyperTunnel in situ method is all about de-risking construction projects,” Jordan said.

Earlier this year, hyperTunnel received €1.88m in funding from the European Innovation Council (EIC) Accelerator scheme, Europe’s flagship innovation programme. The company also received a financial investment from Vinci.