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BT launches UK’s first telecoms robotics test lab

The company is hoping the initiative will help it engage with universities and robotics startups to challenge civil engineering tasks

BT has opened a new robotics research facility to help solve some of the most pressing civil engineering challenges as it looks to place the UK at the forefront of a new era of robotics development for telecoms and civil engineering.

The 5000+ sq. ft. facility located at BT Labs in Suffolk is set to play a key role in developing innovative robotics tools to speed the deployment of essential infrastructure, the company said.

The lab, which the company said is the first dedicated telecoms civil engineering robotics test facility in the country, aims to help the company engage with universities and robotics startups to challenge civil engineering tasks. This includes addressing problems like how to clear out blocked ducts, mend collapsed ducts, and install new fibre network infrastructure without the costs and delays that come with digging up roads and pavements.

BT said that combining new robotic locomotion and excavation techniques, inspired by digging and burrowing mammals and insects, with the latest technologies developed for space exploration, aerospace, and medical applications is showing real promise for delivering ‘trenchless’ infrastructure deployment.

The company added that magnetic, climbing, and cable-traversing robotic techniques are also maturing, enabling trials on wireless tower and overhead cable poles.

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The test lab is expected to play a key role in supporting BT’s fibre programme as well as helping it collaborate with other utilities like power and water companies as they roll out and update their underground and overhead networks.

“The UK is a hotbed of civil engineering innovation, with a thriving university ecosystem and an enviable robotics startup sector. Our aim is to bring those players together in a dedicated facility to develop solutions that make the UK a world leader in telecoms civil engineering robotics,” said professor Tim Whitley, BT’s MD of Research.

“The lab will provide a hub for the creation of solutions to real-world challenges and pioneering applications of robots, reinforcing the UK’s position at the heart of research and innovation into advanced technologies.”

The site is an indoor facility that will allow researchers to test the latest innovations in robotics in an underground environment with different types of soil, an in-duct environment to simulate scenarios where a duct collapses, and an overhead environment to simulate telegraph poles.

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