Dig it: ULC, British utility rolling out robotic excavator

RRES for the weary: The Robotic Roadworks and Excavation System will reduce safety hazards and pedestrian disruptions during natural-gas pipeline repairs, according to ULC Robotics.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

One of the United Kingdom’s largest natural gas networks has partnered with a Long Island-based robotics ace to disrupt one of the costliest and most time-consuming facets of the gas-transmission industry.

Natural gas utilities around the world are knee-deep in expenses, scheduling snafus and other logistical nightmares caused by excavation, and London-based SGN – which boasts some 76,000 kilometers of gas pipelines, many buried under Britain’s cobblestones and sidewalks – is no exception.

To that end, the British utility has teamed up with Hauppauge-based ULC Robotics on the Robotic Roadworks and Excavation System, which combines a powerful industrial robot and an electric track drive system with loads of state-of-the-art tech – including artificial intelligence, machine vision, below-ground locating sensors and cutting-edge “vacuum-excavation methods” – to provide what ULC calls “safer, faster autonomous roadworks.”

This is not the first time ULC Robotics and SGN have crossed paths. In 2017, the Hauppauge manufacturer named former SGN executive Sam Wilson its head of U.K. business development; the British utility has also contributed to the design and field-testing of ULC’s Cast Iron Robotic Repair Inspection System, which includes the CIRRIS XI (for “inspection”) and CIRRIS XR (for “repair”).

But the RRES project may prove to be their most fruitful collaboration yet, according to John Richardson, SGN’s head of innovation, who said the need for dynamic inspection and repair options – with fewer safety hazards and pedestrian disruptions – is paramount, not just for his own company but for the worldwide natural-gas industry.

Ali Asmari: The RRES will be ready to roll in 2021.

“Because we operate 76,000 kilometers of underground pipelines in the U.K., and dig thousands of excavations every year, we recognize the need for smarter roadworks,” Richardson said Tuesday. “We’re leading the effort to change utility excavation by investing in the development of technology to address this global problem.”

The collaboration – partially funded by the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets, Britain’s energy regulatory agency – has already produced a prototype capable of conducting “autonomous operations,” according to ULC Robotics, including smashing through road surfaces and performing those patented vacuum excavations.

But with the first field tests not scheduled until later this year, there’s still plenty of tinkering to be done, according to Ali Asmari, program manager for ULC Robotics, who said the RRES effort has reached its “midway point.”

“There is a significant amount of work remaining, including the development of additional tools and support equipment, as well as testing and validating the robotic operation in different environments,” Asmari added. “But we have an outstanding team and are confident that the robot will be ready to work come 2021.”