Interview on Radio Solent
Edited version of live radio interview conducted on the ‘Drivetime after 4’ show on May 31st 2022
Lou: One Basingstoke firm which is leading the way in innovation is hyperTunnel, a startup developing a radical new method of tunnelling. We’re joined by the co-founder, Steve Jordan. Tell me about your business. What exactly do you do?
Steve: We’re designing a completely new way of building underground structures, especially tunnels. It came about from a project that we were doing that required a lot of tunnels, and we just couldn’t get them built quickly or economically enough to sustain that project. That caused us to spend some time considering the world of tunnelling and how we can apply some economies of scale into that sector. In doing so, we just literally happened upon a completely new way of building tunnels!
Our method actually harks back to the way the tunnels were built 150 years ago by the Victorians. Contrary to the current established method of having one great big machine that builds the tunnel in one place at a time as it moves slowly along the tunnel path, they used to start at both ends and if it was a long enough tunnel, they would drop vertical shafts all the way down, put people down those shafts and build the tunnel throughout its length at the same time. While it clearly wasn’t a good working environment for the navvies, it was very productive.
Clearly, it’s inappropriate to do it in the same way they did, which was unsafe and unhealthy. The answer is, we use robots working in lots of different places at the same time instead of using people. Where it is suitable to do so, our fleet of robots will replace the tunnel boring machine that took over from the navvies that works in one place all the time.
The concept developed into the company that we are today, and we’re two and a half years into development. We’ve put together an amazing team of people, primarily not from the tunnelling industry, but from other technology backgrounds that we’re able to borrow from, from robotics to AI and machine learning, etc.
Lou: What was your background then, Steve? Because it fascinates me that so many of you do not have tunnelling backgrounds? How did you know there was a need for this?
Steve: I grew up in the printing industry and had a 30-year career surrounded by incredible engineering and equipment and machinery doing amazing things at high speed. It conditions you to view things a certain way. The tunnelling industry is a different industry, an entirely incredible industry and the machinery they use is incredible. But they don’t think much outside their tunnels.
If you were to bring somebody forward 150 years to today, they wouldn’t recognise anything – aeroplanes, computers or electronics, many of the things we take for granted today. But they’d know exactly what a tunnel boring machine was! The tunnelling method hasn’t really changed in that period, which is unusual. There’s no comparable lack of progress you can really point to. Tunnelling hasn’t had the same journey. So it just struck me that we can’t go any faster and be more productive with this technology; the only thing to do is to put that aside and think of another way.
So what we do now is basically borrow ideas from other industries and put them together in a different way. We put a grid of pipes in the ground that forms roughly the shape of the tunnel structure. Then we can put thousands of robots down those pipes, which are typically a metre long, the robots can work everywhere throughout that environment and build the tunnel or structure in the ground using the ground to support the build. It’s a bit like 3D-printing. Once we complete this structure, we remove its content, which is now safe, quick and easy to do.
Lou: So it’s good compared to old methods, particularly the safety aspect. Now, is this a cheaper way of doing things? I mean, presumably, it’s a lot quicker?
Steve: Yes indeed. Our goal is to be several times as fast and significant less cost. We’re very much on track to achieve that.
Lou: Goodness. How many other companies are looking at this?
Steve: I don’t think anybody’s doing what we are in terms of looking to use micro robots in a swarm construction process. We’re all familiar with seeing them in the sky as drones doing light displays. Our robots are actually more straightforward than that because of where they’re located; they can go one way, or the other, up or down the pipe, or stop.
Elon Musk of course is running The Boring Company in the States where he’s looking to achieve the same sorts of goals as us. The difference is he’s trying to do it by advancing the tunnel boring machine. There’s only so much you can do with one of these machines to make it go faster. We think he’s on the wrong track.
Lou: What sort of reaction are you getting then in the world of engineering, about your technology and what you’re doing?
Steve: We’ve had a fantastic response. Last October was the first time that we raised our heads in public and we had a stand and presented at the British Tunnelling Society Conference in London. We were nervous about the sort of response we’d get from the rest of the industry. In actual fact, they welcomed us with open arms. They could see we were looking for proper change, new thinking and innovation.
Lou: Whereabouts in the world are you working at the moment?
Steve: We are literally talking to people all over the world. We’re going to conferences all over the world and have people based in a few different locations. Primarily though, we’re operating in Basingstoke, from our offices in Basing View and our test facility that’s kind of in a secret location where a lot of the physical testing of the robots and building of structures takes place.