BT robotics lab to test future infrastructure tools

BT has opened a research facility which aims to put Britain at the forefront of robotics development for telecoms and civil engineering.

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Opening day of BT’s new robotics lab (Image: BT)

The 5000+ sq. ft facility at BT Labs in Martlesham, Suffolk will play a key role in developing robotics solutions to accelerate the deployment of infrastructure. BT will work with universities, robotics start-ups and other utilities to trial UK-developed robotics that can help overcome global telecoms and utility sector civil engineering challenges.

“The use cases we see are use cases that are directly relevant to many other organisations in other utilities, which is why we will be talking to other utility providers,” said Professor Tim Whitley, BT’s MD of Research.

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New robotic locomotion and excavation techniques inspired by mammals and insects represent some of the promising technologies for delivering ‘trenchless’ infrastructure. Magnetic, climbing and cable-traversing robotic techniques are also maturing.

“The way BT thinks about innovation is yes, we have our own researchers, we publish, we patent,” said Prof Whitley. “We participate in that ecosystem, but we also recognise – and have a machine – to look for innovation where it occurs, whether it’s in vendors, whether it’s in start-ups, whether it’s in universities.”

The facility emulates three different types of environments in which testing can be carried out, namely underground, in-duct, and overhead.

For the underground environment, several test beds can be filled with different soil and aggregates to replicate the terrain that creates challenges for laying ducts and fibre across the country. The compaction, moisture content and stone content can all be controlled to test the ability of robots to dig ducts or direct-in-ground fibre. The test beds will also provide environments for fibre sensing and robotics steering tests.

Similarly, pipe stands at the facility are used to construct duct runs, using transparent versions of BT ducts that enables the replication of scenarios such as collapsed or blocked ducts. Finally, the facility holds a full height telegraph pole, with platform access to allow different pole-top fixtures to be fitted. This creates opportunities to test robots that can lift tools, equipment or cable to the top of a pole.