Are AI-Controlled Tunnel Boring Machines On The Horizon?

AI has potential uses for the construction and maintenance of tunnels. For example, it could be used for preventative corrosion control. Here’s a closer look.

Artificial intelligence is already infiltrating almost every aspect of our lives, from selecting a radio station to listen to when we wake up, to the most advanced techniques in healthcare and engineering. AI tools are already widely used in the construction sector to aid the planning and design process. 

According to New Civil Engineer, AI is also on the brink of infiltrating the construction and maintenance of tunnels. For example, it could be used for preventative corrosion control. So will it lead to a terrifying dystopian scenario where the machines have taken over, or is it a welcome development that will save time and labour, and drive up safety standards?

Well in fact, automated microtunnel boring technology is already in widespread use within the utilities sector. It’s used for trenchless systems to create horizontal underground tunnels for laying gas or water pipes. A vertical shaft and receiving pit are set up, and then the laser-guided tunnel-boring machine is operated remotely to drill a horizontal pipe tunnel.

This avoids the time-consuming and inconvenient process of excavating metres of surface tunnel, which causes disruption to traffic or landscapes, and involves costly backfilling and restoration processes. It also reduces the time and labour required to complete the project.

AI is also being deployed as a proactive and preventative maintenance tool, which involves detecting or anticipating problems before they occur, reducing the possibility of emergency situations and allowing engineers to consistently monitor the condition of tunnels or other structures, rather than waiting for a scheduled service before problems are detected.

This can reduce the risk of accidents and injuries, as well as structural failure or unplanned closures and repair work. As well as mitigating against catastrophic incidents, AI-driven preventative maintenance tools can prolong the lifespan of a structure and reduce the need for emergency interventions.

According to the NCE, one of the biggest barriers to further progress of the use of AI in the construction industry is concerns about data sharing. There has yet to be an industry-wide database established because of commercial sensitivities, and this can make it difficult to develop a consistent approach, and requires a lot of duplication of effort. 

Construction project leader Inés Azpeitia González explained to NCE that he has high hopes for the potential of AI. She said: “We think that maybe in the future we’re not going to be able to see when we’re using AI because it’s going to be so integrated in everything that we use.”

“Things are moving so fast, I think in the next years we’re going to see amazing things in the construction sector. I think we’re going to see a huge revolution that hasn’t been seen before.”

“I mean, we’ve been seeing with digital twins and robotics, all these things are going to be improved with AI and we’re going to be able to achieve amazing things. We’re all excited to see what’s coming to construction sites because it’s going to be really, really interesting. We hope to use that technology for the benefit of everyone.”

Another barrier that still needs to be overcome lies in upgrading the skills and training of engineers who will not be familiar with the new technology.