The industry is looking forward to the advent of self-healing pipes and the micro-robots that have already been christened Pipebots, HELEN COMPSON writes. Yes, they might be futuristic developments at the earliest of stages, but one thing is certain, trenchless technology in general is racing down the road.

Andy Taylor’s take on the matter is deceptively simple. “Let’s make excavation the last resort,” he says. “Let’s start with no-dig solutions!”

Chief Engineer at Atkins, a member of SNC-Lavalin group, with a background in wastewater planning and responsible for leading the digital transformation of water and wastewater networks, he knows that, thanks to the phenomenal pace of digital change in recent years, there is real scope to do things differently.

Artificial intelligence is being harnessed to save time and money during the inspection and project planning stages, with the welcome by-product of more accurate, thorough data untainted by human error.

This in itself represents a huge stride in the right direction for utility companies and contractors tasked with achieving ever higher standards.

Andy said: “Ageing infrastructure, doing ‘more for less’, greater public expectations, increased Regulator scrutiny on performance, pressure to embrace new technology – water companies, local authorities and transportation operators face these challenges, and more, every day.

“But at its heart, asset management is about understanding what you have, its condition and prioritising the risk of failure to allow proactive planned maintenance.”

Nowadays Atkins, one of the world’s most respected design, engineering and project management consultancies, is helping clients do just that across a range of industries that includes environment, education, aerospace, defence, transport and … water.

“At Atkins we are starting to apply AI technology successfully applied in our transportation and tunnel projects to automatically identify defects in sewers,” said Andy.

While a camera still needs to be physically dispatched along a sewer, not having to pause the camera at defects increases the speed at which it can travel and identify problems which certainly helps the client tick one Regulator box, that of reducing disruption for customers and the public at large.

“AI technology gets the job done much more efficiently and thereby reduces the amount of time that needs to be spent on site,” he said.

Recognising the length of time the human brain would then need to process the huge amount of data produced, Atkins has also taken the next step and designed an automated system that is so advanced, it not only identifies the rehabilitation work needed, but costs the resulting programme of work too.

“We’d recognised that AI would only solve the problems of data collection and quality,” he said. “After that, the client was still faced with masses of data which, of course, was ripe for automated processing.

“And that is where a digital tool developed by Atkins – called RATS for short – comes in.”

The relatively new Rehabilitation Automation Tool for Sewage automatically reviews the CCTV survey data gathered, coded in accordance with the Manual of Sewer Condition Classification, and recommends appropriate rehabilitation schemes based on critical modes of structural failure.

Andy said: “Instead of people having to sit looking at screens, deliberating on different solutions, if, say, the CCTV found a hole 25m along a 50m pipe, RATS would know immediately that a patch was needed at that point.

“We have automated that whole process to reduce the human input needed, making it so much faster and cheaper for our clients.”

With AI diagnosing the defects and RATS prescribing the treatment, together they are streamlining the whole process going forward.

 “Our business is that of a technical consultancy,” said Andy. “We provide advice and engineering design for public, regulated and private sector clients.

“Happily, the multidisciplinary nature of our skills allows us to draw on expertise gained in one quarter and transfer it to another.

“In this case, the knowledge and ability gained in transport and infrastructure design has been transferred to water.”

Atkins has been developing and refining RATS for a couple of years now and last October it was officially appointed by Connect Plus Services, which manages the operation and maintenance for the M25 motorway, to review its CCTV data.

“From a drainage perspective, we have actually been working with them for the past year or so,” he said. “It’s a real example of where we have been able to utilise a digital tool to not only provide significant financial savings for our clients, but also to halve the time needed to analyse 600kms of CCTV survey data, (18,710 surveys), and propose solutions to the worst defects.”

In the process, Atkins had also been raising the bar for the industry as a whole.

“That is something we pride ourselves on,” said Andy. “While driving efficiencies for our clients, we are also helping to set new standards, thanks to the research and development we carry out and the resultant new technologies such as RATS.”

One of the company’s unique selling points for the past 20 years has been the fact it always has a former CCTV or rehabilitation contractor on its team, giving the client the benefit of real practical site experience. Andy said: “While there is an element of poacher turned gamekeeper, this is something clients really appreciate.”

It also paid dividends when it came to helping clients comply with rule number one laid down by Regulators – thou shalt give excellent service to customers. Implicit within that is ‘with minimal disruption to them or anyone else’.

Take the M25 work, there are limited windows of opportunity in which to carry that out. Lane closures are costly in terms of both time and money. RATS has certainly come into its own by allowing all schemes to be grouped by area to maximise the work undertaken during possessions.

Part and parcel of Andy’s remit is the automation of routine tasks. To that end, he is as likely to be canvassing Atkins’ own staff for ideas as evaluating third party tools.

“The idea for RATS came from a member of staff and we’ve now transformed that into a new service for our clients,” he said.

“We believe in tapping into the knowledge and experience of our workforce – it is the strength of Atkins.

“A lot of IT companies try to break into new markets, markets like this one, and they do have all the technology.

“What they don’t have, though, is the industry knowledge, the experience of engineering or working at ground level on a site.”