Imagine if we were able to see below the ground, to detect potential hazards, and to assess the underground infrastructure before buildings works begin?

Mine-shafts, pipes, cables and utility infrastructure, and deeper down, old foundations, tunnels, sewers, and sinkholes pose geotechnical risks for infrastructure and brownfield developments. Incredibly, millions of pounds are spent on site investigations for projects like HS2 rail, and huge inefficiencies are caused by digging and roadworks. The utility industry undertakes 1.5 million street works annually to repair, maintain and upgrade its vast network of buried infrastructure.

Gravity sensor equipmentCutting-edge research undertaken by colleagues at the University of Birmingham has the potential to do just that. Using quantum technology, researchers are developing the next generation of gravity sensors capable of detecting deep-underground hazards such as sinkholes, mineshafts and landslides faster and more precisely. It means potential catastrophes can be spotted earlier and averted.

The technology allows sensors to penetrate much deeper below ground than current remote sensing tools are able to do and to make faster measurements of gravity. It opens the possibility of transforming huge sectors and industries, economically and from a health and safety point of view, as well as everyday lives.

The capabilities these sensors offer will be hugely impactful across many engineering sectors. For example, compared to the current commercially available sensor, the gravity sensor being developed at the University of Birmingham will be able to see much deeper into the ground, and, with the help of 3D printing and novel designs for magnetic shielding, will produce incredibly precise detection results. Once the gravity sensor is fully developed and manufactured in volume, engineers will routinely be able to ‘see’ into the ground to examine the underground landscape, and help to prevent disasters arising from undetected sinkholes, and in more routine civil engineering, shorten the length of time for road works.

Roadworks in particular are costly to the UK, not least in the congestion they cause. The National Joint Utilities Group has estimated that the total cost of UK utility street works from 2013 to 2030 will be £319bn.

Quantum sensors could support both political and commercial priorities in the UK. Lynchpin infrastructures like HS2, brownfield building to solve the housing crisis, and the upkeep of our crucial utilities, would be made safer, cheaper and faster if we know more about what lies beneath.


Find out more

To read more about how gravity sensor research will impact civil engineering, transport and other sectors, please visit the UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing website.