U.K. operator BT is opening a 5,000-square-foot robotics research facility at BT Labs in Suffolk, England, that will develop robotic solutions to be used in telecom and civil engineering. The operator says the lab is the first of its kind in the U.K.
BT envisions researchers at the new facility working with universities and utilities to develop and test tools that will help speed BT’s fiber deployment as well as aid power and water companies in updating their underground and overhead networks.
“The lab will provide a hub for the creation of solutions to real world challenges and pioneering applications of robots,” said Tim Whitley, BT’s managing director of research.
The research site will have several test zones. For example, an underground area will have test beds that can be filled with different soil to replicate different types of terrain that might be challenging for laying fiber. An in-duct environment will have pipe stands that are used to construct duct runs to enable researchers to replicate scenarios where a duct collapses or becomes blocked with silt. And an overhead environment will have a life-size telephone pole equipped with different pole-top fixtures. This will allow researchers to test robots to see if they can lift tools, equipment or cable to the top of pole. In addition, this environment has cables that run from one pole to another so researchers can develop devices to be used to pull new cables without damaging existing cable.
Some examples of the types of problems that may be solved, or at least made more efficient, thanks to the efforts of researchers at the lab include:
- More easily clearing blocked ducts or mending collapsed ducts
- Installing new fiber infrastructure without having to dig up roads and pavement
- Delivering trenchless infrastructure using robotic locomotion and excavation techniques.
- Using magnetic, climbing and cable-traversing robots to climb wireless towers or overhead cable poles.
BT isn’t the only company investing in robotics research to help deploy fiber faster and cheaper. Facebook Connectivity has created Bombyx, an aerial fiber-deploying robot that crawls along power lines and wraps fiber around those lines. Facebook is currently looking for potential partners, such as electric utility companies, to use Bombyx to deploy fiber on electrical infrastructure.