Tunneling robot speeds up installation of underground utilities

Diving Brief:

  • Petra, a San Francisco-based robotics company that focuses on installing underground utilities, has developed a boring robot designed to dig utility channels through difficult terrain, including bedrock. That of the robot thermal spallation drilling process creates “micro tunnels” between 20 and 60 inches in diameter by bombarding rock with high-energy particles, removing material without direct contact.
  • This technology allows Petra to bury utilities deep below the surface and in difficult terrain, extending the reach of the power grid and providing greater resilience against climate-related disasters, the company said. in a press release.
  • Last month, the company announced that it had completed a 20-foot demonstration drill through Sioux quartzite bedrock at a quarry in southern Minnesota at an average of 1 inch per minute.

Overview of the dive:

The Energy Information Association estimates that global demand for energy infrastructure will increase by 50% over the next 30 years. At the same time, the global effects of climate change highlight the vulnerabilities present in current utility installations, including overhead power lines and underground utilities in soft soil layers.

Petra predicts that installing utilities more underground will create a more resilient network and reduce the risk of man-made disasters, such as forest fires or explosions.

“As the former president of SoCal Edison, I oversaw capital projects in urban, suburban, and rural mountainous areas. A robot capable of burying utility facilities in bedrock would have been a game-changer for us,” said Bob Foster, an adviser to Petra. “In cities, it would allow us to bury utilities in bedrock, under existing infrastructure. In mountainous areas, like the foothills of the Sierra, it would allow us to bury utilities in areas that more prone to fires than our state.”

According to Petra’s press release, modern “trenchless” tunnel boring machines – including micro-tunnels and horizontal directional drills – incorporate cutter heads that break easily when digging tunnels in hard rock. Petra’s thermal spallation drilling method aims to remove this barrier and reduce the cost and complexity associated with utility drilling projects.

In addition to its standard bore, Petra’s drilling robot is also capable of reverse tunneling, allowing for both machine maintenance and cutter head rescue.

Petra raised $33 million in its Series A funding round last month, led by venture capital firm DCVC along with ACME Capital, Congruent Ventures, 8VC, Real Ventures, Elementum Ventures and Mac Venture Capital.

Boring new methods and technologies have recently gained wider attention with Elon Musk Boring Co. Underground Transportation Projects, currently in various stages of planning and operation across the country. The Boring Co. Prufrock Drilling Machine creates tunnels that are standard 12 feet wide or a 21 feet width for cargo transportand currently drills at over a mile a week, according to the company.

This article has been updated with new images, as well as the location of Petra’s boring robot demo.

Bonny J. Streater