New technologies have recently been trialled by Tideway and Thames Water, to investigate their effectiveness in carrying out inspections for the future Thames Tideway Tunnel system. The hope is that this technology will reduce the need for workers to enter the tunnel – a potentially hazardous working environment – for routine maintenance in future.
In order to test the effectiveness of existing and emerging equipment, two elements of inspection were identified for assessment – inspection of the main tunnels themselves, and of the various shafts and structures that feed to the main tunnels.
Key to the tunnel tests was ensuring that the equipment could be entirely autonomous in its operation, and not reliant on tethers, cables or remote controls that would complicate deployment, use and recovery. The equipment also needed to be able give accurate location of defects or items of interest within the tunnel; bearing in mind that geolocation / GPS is not possible within the tunnel.
Thames Water and Tideway worked with a leading software and robotics company, who supplied a four-wheeled autonomous rover unit for the trial conducted in the Lee Tunnel and Abbey Mills Shaft F. Equipped with LIDAR, stereo cameras and additional sensors, and with Artificial Intelligence capabilities, the rover was theoretically capable of fulfilling the brief. In fact, a similar rover had been used as part of the exploration of the planet Mars!
Additional tests were carried out live in the tunnel to assess how the rover would perform against unexpected obstacles and conditions in the tunnel, with some very promising results.
In addition to the rover, remotely operated drones were tested within a shaft, specifically, to assess if drones could be used to provide visual assessments of these structures.
Initial findings of the trials were presented to Thames Tideway Tunnel project staff earlier this month. Further to this, staff were given the opportunity to trial virtual reality goggles to undertake a virtual inspection of the tunnel – a unique experience for all.
The initial trials were very promising, however this is just the start of the journey towards autonomous inspection, and both Thames Water and Tideway will continue to work with the supplier and the wider industry to develop and refine the technology and our requirements.
*This blog was written by Nick Baker, Tideway London