11 January 2021
CM Industrial By CM Industrial

Tunnelling in 2021: Sustainable, Safe & Smart.

2020 was a tough year, but tunnelling companies adapted admirably to the challenges of COVID-19 and continued to operate successfully.

Now there’s light at the end of the tunnel (no pun intended), the industry is stronger and producing some of the most exciting technology it ever has. All of which is focused on achieving common objectives to help tunnelling become a more sustainable, safe and smart industry.

There’s Value in Being Sustainable

In times of climate change and rising energy costs, it’s vital to develop sustainable, energy-efficient alternatives. Energy-saving tunnel boring machines (TBMs) and drill rigs are playing an increasingly important role in this, offering a more economically viable option for tunnel projects.

While there’s financial advantages to using energy-saving TBMs and drill rigs, their ability to produce fewer CO2 emissions is equally important. That’s because more attention is now being paid to the industry’s emissions, which has also become an important consideration for tunnel projects.

As the market leader in mechanized tunnelling technology, Herrenknecht AG has taken the responsibility upon itself to save energy and lower emissions with their drill rigs and TBMs.

Herrenknecht’s HK80CK rig is low in emissions installing pipelines due to its hybrid drive. Instead of a diesel engine, which makes noise protection and exhaust gas purification necessary, the rig is electrically powered.

The diesel engine is only needed to drive the machine into position. From then on, all components including separation and mixing plants, transfer tanks, the mobile pre-crushing unit and transfer pump are electrically powered.

The drive by the electric motor is environmentally friendly, low in emissions and low in noise. Due to these advantages, there’s plenty of growth potential for this technology which is also being worked on by numerous other companies including Epiroc, Sandvik and Normet.

That’s not all Herrenknecht is up to though. By the reusing multiple components over several project cycles, the company has managed to lower the carbon footprint of its TBMs (from the extraction of the raw materials required for production, to disposal after the end of its operational capability).

A study concentrated on large steel components found that refurbishing individual TBM components in this manner saves 65% of greenhouse gases, 80% of electricity and 99% of material (when compared to new production).

Herrenknecht has carried out professional refurbishing (or ‘rebuilding’) of tunnelling technology for decades. I expect to see more companies embrace this smart way of working in 2021.

Safety is Always the Priority

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s also been increased attention on the safety of tunnel operatives. While this has always been a priority, the virus has created a host of new challenges for site managers to consider and adapt their operations in accordance with.

A positive to come out of this has been an acceleration in the adoption of autonomous machinery, which allows tunnelling sites to continue to operate with less people onsite. Not only does this mean better social distancing, but it also opens up opportunities for the industry beyond the pandemic with increased efficiencies.

Moving away from autonomous machinery (which CM Industrial’s Director, Ben Robinson, talks more about here), there’s also been increased innovation in design processes to enhance the safety of tunnels.

This is an area in which the underground ventilation specialist, Zitrón, has been impressing with its MODULBYP unit.

The MODULBYP unit’s smart design provides a protected safety zone and escape corridor for transport tunnels. Each unit contains connections with the tunnel’s electricity supply grid and data network, thereby enhancing safety measures and rapid communication with support services.

The unit is designed to comply with all national and European Union regulations and directives for tunnel safety, which stipulate the need for pedestrian cross-connections and entryways with a maximum separation of 300 metres between the two channels of a tunnel.

The cross-connections between the two channels of the tunnel are aimed at providing a guaranteed escape route to the outside and the possibility, where space permits, of a temporary shelter for the safety of users in the event of a fire.

Getting Smart with Digitalisation

Staying with Zitrón, the company has also caught people’s attention with its business information modelling systems - which are just one of the many technologies improving efficiency and safety throughout the industry in an era that’s becoming defined by digitalisation.

Alongside CFD simulation tests of the critical components of a ventilation system, these modelling systems validate and optimize product design. This means that they can prevent hazards before they happen.

PBE Rutherford is another leader in underground solutions that’s advanced tunnelling with digitalisation. In 2020, the company released its latest compact control centre: the PAS-Command.

This intelligent, low profile, compact control centre is compatible with the PAS-Tablet or a remote screen and forms part of PBE’s Proximity Alert System (PAS) Solution. It has been designed to enhance workplace safety by reducing risk of collision through asset and personnel detection and warning. It can alert drivers of personnel, vehicles, obstacles and user defined geofences.

Digitalisation brings more benefits than safety. It is also helping the industry work smarter and make more data-led decisions.

TPC Tunnelsoft, a member of Babeng, is leading the way in this area with its tunnelling process control (TPC) software. This supports day-to-day tunnelling operation and logistics, providing operators with an abundance of information and data available via their laptop or smart phone. 

TPC monitors and controls data on mechanical processes, geotechnical measurements and more. It works in real-time, so the user can see the interaction between excavation and the surrounding ground and structures as it happens, anytime and anywhere.

Having been forced to go more digital by COVID-19, this could be the ‘new normal’ for many tunnelling operators in the future.

While 2021 will continue to be dominated and influenced by the global pandemic, the future is looking bright. Companies have reacted admirably to the challenges that they’ve faced and I’m very proud to serve this resilient industry. I can’t wait to see this year’s tunnelling innovations continue to transform the space, as tunnelling becomes more environmentally friendly, safe and smart.

If you have any feedback about this article or think I’ve missed anything, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please email me at Isabelle.Mather@industrial-cm.com.

Please find more of my mining content on my consultant page.

Back to the top
CM Industrial


Mining the Future, Technology First.
12 May 2022
Abby Child By Abby Child

Mining the Future, Technology First.

These mining tech trends give a vision of the future, with optimised environmental and economic solutions, lower risks, and much safer working conditions. Click here to read more about them.

Sustainable Mining Solutions? Get Your Head in the Cloud.
13 January 2022
CM Industrial By CM Industrial

Sustainable Mining Solutions? Get Your Head in the Cloud.

In this episode we speak with Sandeep Sandhu, General Manager of the Americas at RPM Global, about the power of digitisation to help traditional mining practices meet sustainable goals. Click to listen now.

Carbon Neutral Mining: Mission Impossible?
23 August 2021
CM Industrial By CM Industrial

Carbon Neutral Mining: Mission Impossible?

Mining companies like FLSmidth have committed to initiatives like MissionZero - a sustainability programme to reduce emissions in cement and mining to zero by 2030. In this podcast, we discuss the importance of this trend.

How Technology and Data is Creating Autonomy for the Mining Industry.
15 March 2021
Ben Robinson By Ben Robinson

How Technology and Data is Creating Autonomy for the Mining Industry.

What does Nick Hare, the President of Hexagon's mining division, think about the latest autonomous technologies in mining? Click to find out.

Get the latest into your inbox.