New Robot Tunnels Through Hardest Rock
Underground utilities robotics company Petra announced last month that it has successfully completed a demonstration tunnel with a robot that can bore through the hardest rocks in the world. The new, first of its kind rock boring-robot was invented to transform the way utilities are buried underground reliably and cost-effectively.
“In the past, there have only been a handful of costly and inefficient methods for tunnel construction, starting with manual tools and evolving to the modern tunnel-boring machine. Our non-contact method is the next evolution of tunneling and will usher in a new age of undergrounding utilities,” said Petra CEO and co-founder Kim Abrams in a press release.
“By delivering the first non-contact, boring-robot that affordably undergrounds utilities through bedrock, we can protect communities around the world from exposure to wildfires and ensure the safety of critical infrastructure in disaster-prone areas.”
The semi-autonomous, non-contact tunneling robot drilled a 20-foot tunnel with a 24-inch diameter one-inch per minute through hard Sioux Quartzite, which is typically excavated with dynamite. Other ground types tested in lab results included granite, basalt, gneiss and dolostone.
According to Petra, the tunneling robot uses thermal-drilling that can bore micro tunnels for utilities through previously impenetrable geologies without touching the rock. Typical boring machines are purpose-built for single diameter, while Petra can bore a range of diameters between 20-60 inches.
The machine also features the first reverse-tunneling technology, reportedly making machine maintenance and cutter head rescue possible in construction services, tunnel development and ongoing maintenance. Traditional Tunnel Boring Machines (mTBM), Horizontal Directional Drilling (HDD) and other conventional “trenchless” methods can increase cost and complexity with breakable cutter heads.
“As the former President of SoCal Edison, I oversaw capital projects in urban, suburban, and rural mountainous areas. A robot that can bury utility facilities in bedrock would have been a game-changer for us,” said Bob Foster, a Petra Advisor. “In cities, it would allow us to bury utilities in bedrock, below the existing infrastructure. In mountainous areas, like the Sierra foothills, it would allow us to bury utilities in the most fire-prone regions of our state.”
The company kept grid-related disasters such as California wildfires, winter storms and hurricanes in mind when creating the robot, stating that the national grid wasn’t built to withstand climate changes or new strains on the 40-year-old system. By installing power lines underground, infrastructure will be more resilient, with the Energy Information Administration projecting an increase in global energy demand of 50% in the next 30 years.
Petra also raised $30 million of Series A funding, lead by DCVC, Deep Tech venture firm, to make utilities safer by undergrounding grid infrastructure in disaster-prone environments.
“At DCVC we’re committed to investing in companies that are building solutions to make our society’s infrastructure more resilient. Petra’s ability to bore tunnels in bedrock is transformational for global utilities and innumerable other applications,” said Dr. Chris Boshuizen, DCVC Partner and co-founder of Planet. “Petra’s tunneling technology is providing a safer, faster, and more cost-effective option for all underground infrastructure - electricity, water, sewage, and enables projects the world would never have been able to do before.”