- Industry members and academic institutions, including the Colorado School of Mines’ (CSM) Center of Underground Construction and Tunneling, are researching how to use technology to better assist tunnel-boring machines’ operations, which involve multiple parts and close monitoring from an attendant, according to Engineering News-Record, and produce constant data streams as the machine navigates through the earth.
- Studies show an operator can’t control more than three or four of the more than two dozen parameters TBMs generate, to include real-time information about surface and subsurface settlement, vibrations, cutter-head speed and rotation and screw-conveyor activity.
- In response, CSM and other industry members are working to improve automation, including deploying artificial intelligence that will recognize data patterns from operator-generated inputs and performance-related outputs. Through thousands of sensors placed throughout the TBM and on ground surfaces and other targets, researchers gather data so they can analyze the information using CSM-created algorithms to detect patterns. If those patterns can be identified early, researchers posit that tunnelers can use it to improve performance. The team hopes to move its AI activity to the field on the $600 million Northeast Boundary Tunnel project in Washington D.C.
The TBM market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 4.2% by 2022, according to an April report from Radiant Insights. As the use of these monstrous machines — Bertha, for example, which tunneled under Seattle, weighed 6,200 tons and measured 326 feet long — continues to grow, it’s likely advancements and technologies such as CSM's will grow alongside it.
This past summer, DC Water began digging a 5-mile-long tunnel, the last leg of a 13-mile Anacostia River Tunnel System, which is part of the $2.7 billion Clean Rivers Project. This part of the tunnel will use a 680-ton boring machine during the next two-and-a-half years and will dig a reinforced concrete tunnel 23 feet in diameter 160 feet below the ground.
In a first for the department, the Virginia DOT decided this summer to use a tunnel boring machine for its Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel project, estimated to cost up to $3.8 billion. The DOT decided boring, as opposed to the immersed tube method it has favored in the past, would cause less environmental damage, as well as allow military and commercial shipping activity to continue during construction.
Elon Musk’s The Boring Co. is pushing the tunnel boring industry further. The company has made no secret of its goal to increase machine speed and efficiency and cut tunneling costs by a factor of 10. Those lofty goals could soon be put in motion with the company set to build an express train from downtown Chicago to O’Hare International Airport. The twin-tunnel design, using an electric system of vehicles traveling more than 100 miles per hour, would transport passengers between the two locations in only 12 minutes.