BT unleashes telco robots lab on Suffolk

The robots are coming to Suffolk.

Some of them are robots that can tunnel under roads, and are modeled on moles. One caterpillar robot can find its way using vibrations, and burrow around obstacles like tree roots – all while laying fiber and other telecoms tasks, and saving costs from digging trenches and closing roads.

And they could be ready to test in the field in 12 to 18 months, says Professor Tim Whitley, BT's managing director of research at BT's Adastral Park research and development site, close to the Suffolk town of Ipswich.

Robot takeover: BT's test center will help the telco roll out automated infrastructure builds using robots.  (Source: BT)
Robot takeover: BT's test center will help the telco roll out automated infrastructure builds using robots.
(Source: BT)

BT says as a first step it is opening a new 5,000 square-foot robotics research facility, which will develop robots to get cracking in the telecoms and utility fields. Philip Jansen's company says the robot lab is "the first dedicated telecoms civil engineering robotics test facility in the UK."

Pairing with universities, robots will emulate the locomotion and excavation techniques of insects and digging or burrowing mammals.

The lab will include three different "test zones": underground environments, ones overhead, and ones inside ducts. After all, and just to name one part of BT Group that will benefit, the Openreach division isn't responsible just for rolling out fiber optic broadband. It's also charged with maintaining all the cables, ducts, cabinets and exchanges connecting nearly all UK homes and businesses to the country's broadband and telephone network. Openreach is also moving exchanges away from old copper-based telephone services and onto an all-IP network.

Put the pedal to the metal

These would be nice things to automate, even if Openreach does have one of the UK's largest fiber-focused civil engineering teams.

It's already made use of drones to carry optical fiber cable over rivers and difficult to access land, and for mapping and surveying.

But it still could use robotic help for tasks like clearing out blocked ducts, mending collapsed ducts, and installing new fiber infrastructure. The idea is bringing together a "thriving university ecosystem and an enviable robotics startup sector," says Professor Whitley.

But it isn't just the BT Group's own work that the lab is eyeing. If other sectors, like power and water companies, can use the tech too for their own purposes then it gets a lot cheaper to make, and possibly becomes a money-spinner on the side.

Back to nuts and bolts

The "testbed" environments in the robot facility will include a full-height telegraph pole. Different pole tops can be fitted to it, helping test robots designed to lift tools, equipment, or cable up to the top of the pole.

From that pole also can be run out 35 meters of cable to another pole, to test cable-car devices to pull in new cables or deal with threatening tree canopies.

Other, shorter posts offer a testbed for other cable-traveling devices.

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There are also underground testbeds that can be filled with different types of soil and aggregate to duplicate different sorts of terrain robots will need to dig pathways through, to lay ducts and in-ground fiber. Researchers also can change the moisture and stone content of these test beds, and how compact they are.

And transparent special versions of BT ducts will let researchers replicate different scenarios causing a duct to collapse or become blocked up with silt.

This robot lab, and all its robomoles and caterpillars, lives on BT's Adastral Park research and development site, close to the East Anglian town of Ipswich.

The hope, ultimately, is that BT will able to deploy such technology to bring down the company's current average build costs, which currently stand at £250 (US$339) to £350 ($474) per premises.

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Pádraig Belton, contributing editor special to Light Reading

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