BT unveils robotics test lab to speed infrastructure roll-out

Telco opens UK’s first dedicated telecoms civil engineering robotics test facility designed to help fibre network development and roll-out in challenging environments

Over the decades, the BT laboratories at Martlesham Heath have seen a number of innovations that have helped shape the telecommunications industry. Now the UK incumbent telco has opened a robotics research facility to speed the deployment of essential infrastructure, in particular fibre networks.

The importance of fibre to BT was shown in the telco’s recent half-yearly results, when it noted how the build programme of the the fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) network of its Openreach division had been one of the standouts for the reporting period, with an average run-rate of 47,300 premises passed per week and a customer base of 945,000 out of a total base of almost six million premises.

FTTP connections have nearly doubled year-on-year to 1.3 million and 10 communications providers, including Sky and TalkTalk, have signed up to Openreach’s long-term FTTP pricing offer.

At the end of the half-year, the telco decided against creating a joint venture to fund the roll-out of fibre to an additional five million premises. This was said to have been decided after conducting discussions with prospective investors and a review that showed FTTP build costs coming down and take-up ahead of expectations.

The new robotics research facility covers more than 5,000ft2 at BT’s Suffolk site and has the stated mission of placing the UK at the forefront of a new era of robotics development for telecoms and civil engineering. It will also play a key role for BT in developing robotics to speed working with the university sector and other utilities to trial a new range of UK-developed robotics that are applicable to telecoms and utility sector civil engineering challenges worldwide.

The test lab is expected to play an important role in supporting BT’s fibre programme, as well as facilitating collaboration with other utilities, such as power and water companies, as they roll out and update their underground and overhead networks.

The facility emulates three different types of environment in which testing can be carried out: underground, in-duct and overhead. As regards the former, the facility includes several test beds that can be filled with different soil and aggregate types 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 within these environments to test the ability of robots to dig pathways for ducts or direct-in-ground fibre.

The test beds will also provide demanding environments for fibre sensing and robotics steering tests. Pipe stands are being used at the facility to construct duct runs, using specially manufactured transparent versions of BT ducts. This enables replication of the scenarios whereby a duct collapses or becomes blocked with silt build-up.

The facility contains 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. Cables can be run to another pole to provide a single 35m span for development of cable-car-like devices for pulling in new cables or dealing with tree canopies that could damage an existing cable. A series of shorter posts provides a “pole transit” testbed for developing other cable-travelling devices.

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The lab is also the first dedicated telecoms civil engineering robotics test facility in the UK, designed to help BT engage with the university sector and robotics startups as they develop robotic technology for challenging civil engineering tasks. This includes addressing problems such as how to clear out blocked ducts, mend collapsed ducts and install new fibre network infrastructure without incurring the cost and delays that come with digging up roads and pavements.

At the launch of the facility, BT demonstrated the work it was carrying out in the field of fibre deployment with the universities of Liverpool, Nottingham, Bristol and Surrey.

BT said new robotic locomotion and excavation techniques, inspired by digging and burrowing mammals and insects, coupled with the latest technologies developed for space exploration, aerospace and medical applications, are showing real promise for delivering “trenchless” infrastructure deployment. Magnetic, climbing and cable-traversing robotic techniques are also maturing, enabling proof-of-concept trials on wireless tower and overhead cable poles.

“The UK is a hotbed of civil engineering innovation, with a thriving university ecosystem and an enviable robotics startup sector,” said Tim Whitley, BT’s MD of research. “Our aim is to bring those players together in a dedicated facility to develop solutions that make the UK a world leader in telecoms civil engineering robotics.

“The lab will provide a hub for the creation of solutions to real-world challenges and pioneering applications of robots, reinforcing the UK’s position at the heart of research and innovation into advanced technologies.”

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