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Crossrail special: A journey into the future

1 February 2017

Crossrail's legacy will not just be the miles of train track and platforms across London and the south east. As James Kenny discovers, the project has become a hotbed of innovation that will serve construction for years to come.

Projects such as Crossrail will leave a deep-rooted legacy across the industry. Europe’s most ambitious engineering project has already had a major impact on working practices in areas such as apprenticeships and procurement.    

Another key area where it will have a long-lasting impact is the use of technology on site.

Drones, BIM and tablets, among other technologies, have become more common on site the last few years, but Crossrail has been a pioneer, pushing the boundaries and adapting already existing gadgets for construction use, while also working on new tech that will benefit the whole built environment sector for years. 

A main driver in this innovation and one of the key stations on the Elizabeth line is Liverpool Street, one of London’s busiest transport hubs.

About the project

Liverpool Street Crossrail station will open in December 2018 when services begin through central London. Trains will terminate at Paddington in the west and Abbey Wood in the east.

Laing O’Rourke was awarded the main £300m construction contract for the project to build two new entrances and ticket halls and platforms, creating new interchanges with the Northern, Central, Metropolitan, Circle and Hammersmith & City Lines, as well as connections to Stansted airport and National Rail services.

The construction of the new Liverpool Street Crossrail Station is divided up into four main sites: Moorgate, Liverpool Street, Finsbury Circus Shaft, and Blomfield Street Shaft.

A number of physical constraints below ground at Liverpool Street made the station one of the trickiest to thread into the urban fabric, including a maze of sewers, existing tube lines and the Post Office Railway.

In addition, layers of the city’s history had to be revealed before much of the work could get underway, which in total uncovered nearly 4,000 skeletons from the Bedlam burial site as well as thousands of artefacts dating back to Roman times.

The £300m station project has become a hotbed of innovation as new technology has been used and tested on site to keep construction on time and to budget.

Ravi Kugananthan, project engineer, tunnels and platforms for main contractor Laing O’Rourke, explains how everyday gadgets and technology have been adapted for the project and how some of the solutions and ideas are now being adopted across the construction industry.

“There are two types of ways you can look at innovation: come up with something completely new or look at using existing technology and adapt what hasn’t been used in a construction environment before,” he says. “And that’s mostly what we’ve done at Liverpool Street. We used normal off-the-shelf technology which hasn’t been used from a construction point of view.” 

All of the new ideas developed and tested at Liverpool Street have been made possible by Crossrail’s innovation programme, Innovate18, which it developed with London’s Imperial College.

The initiative involved Crossrail contacting various Tier 1 contractors in its supply chain and asking them to not only agree to share ideas with each other, but also pay £25,000 into an innovation fund. All the major contractors working on Crossrail, including Balfour Beatty, Kier, BAM, Laing O’Rourke and Skanska, agreed. This created an open dialogue of ideas and a testing ground for new innovation, but by committing funds meant that an £800,000 pool was created that could be used to develop and test new concepts.

William Reddaway, innovation programme manager at Crossrail, says: “Traditionally the construction industry has been quite slow to pursue innovation or there have been barriers with companies keeping their own ideas in-house.

“With Innovate18 we had all the contractors agreeing to work and develop together and really collaborating on research and developing fresh ideas or improvements to existing ways of working. The programme transcended contract and other boundaries and encouraged the collective effort to succeed, and that, in turn, will help the whole construction industry.”

He adds: “This was about legacy and understanding what technologies or solutions can have a positive impact, not only on Crossrail, but the industry as a whole. The programme helped share information and supported a trial if an idea had potential and had never been used in a certain environment.”

Innovate18 has funded the trial of more than 63 ideas, ranging from drones for site surveys to new sensors to keep people and machinery separate.

Although the programme has been wound down on Crossrail, it has been broadened into an industry-wide model called I3P. This is the new innovation forum for the infrastructure industry and it already has five client organisations signed up, including Crossrail, as well as 14 contractors.

The following are six innovations that have been trialled successfully at Liverpool Street station and could have widespread impact in the industry. 

Smart helmets

Among the more innovative concepts was an augmented reality (AR) smart helmet created by a collaboration between Crossrail and technology company Soluis.

"This was about legacy and understanding what technologies or solutions can have a positive impact, not only on Crossrail, but the industry as a whole."

William Reddaway, Crossrail

Glasgow-based Soluis was awarded £35,000 from Innovate UK to develop software that would allow AR to be utilised on site. Over the past year the company has been working with Crossrail to build and test an app on the Liverpool Street site that allows construction site staff to access and upload BIM data via the smart helmet’s visor display.

Called “In-site”, the app is able to transfer information about buildings or structures from the cloud to the helmet and then overlay it as augmented reality on workers’ visor screens. Testing the app and the smart helmet on the site has shown how such technology could be used in the future as the hardware becomes more common and cost effective.

UtterBerry sensors

UtterBerry, an intelligent wireless sensor system using the world’s smallest wireless sensors, has also been developed and tested on the station site.

Developed originally by Heba Bevan, a PhD student at the Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction at the University of Cambridge, it consists of miniature, self-powered sensors placed around the site, that can carry out calculations to derive tunnel displacement in real-time without human intervention. No access is required to keep the system running in potentially unsafe areas.

The sensors have allowed contractors to know the location of people in a tunnel in the event of an emergency and is poised to be adapted across the industry on further tunnelling projects.

GoPro cameras

These sturdy action cameras originally came out in 2004 and have been mostly used to shoot sports. However, at Liverpool Street, GoPros were attached to a number of workers on site to record their daily tasks and the resulting footage was studied to improve ways of working.

“We wanted to see the perspective of different workers during the day — steel fixers, electricians, for example, and see what they see. So this footage was recorded and then analysed and we processed it and gave it back as a presentation on site,” says O’Rourke’s Ravi Kugananthan.

“Simple things came out of it, such as a worker wasn’t wearing long sleeves doing their job. This has now become mandatory on all sites. It’s been hugely helpful in the area of health and safety.”

Pico projectors

Pico, or pocket, projectors are easy to transport, which means people can project their data and video anywhere without being tied to power supply. Onsite presentations and updates could be done during the project off the cuff without having to bring workers to offices.

"We were the first to use these projectors but now you are seeing them across other sites in the industry."

Ravi Kugananthan, Laing O’Rourke

Kugananthan says: “The projector was released only a year and a half ago and only costs £350. It wasn’t intended for a construction environment but that’s what we’ve used it for. From our offices in Liverpool street down to the tunnels it’s a good 15-20 minutes to the site and then back again. If you calculate that by a number of people, it does clock up a lot of hours wasted just moving people around and to do presentations and briefings.

“With these projectors, there’s no power requirement, it’s very portable and produces a very large screen on a surface, so we were able to update workers, show operatives tasks, or dangers or changes on site. The amount of time and costs this has saved on the project has been huge. We were the first to use these projectors but now you are seeing them across other sites in the industry.”

Drones

Drones have also become a vital part of the work at the new station, particularly in the Moorgate shaft area.

As Kugananthan explains: “In Moorgate we had a number of continual inspections to do at height. The work involved inspecting the 45-50m shafts that serve the station. We also had to check services attached to the side of the shafts.”

The work had been done manually, with engineers using mobile elevating work platforms to video and photograph the shafts and tunnels. This was time-consuming and a potential safety issue.

“So we bought an off-the-shelf drone — the DJI Inspire 1 — and workers were trained to use it. We ended up using them not only for inspections but also organising logistics, providing a record of progress and general safety inspections,” adds Kugananthan.

Noise-cancelling speakers

This idea originated from noise-cancelling headphones and the desire to try to make the work environment as quiet and as disruption free as possible. The technology is based on “inverting” sound waves to cancel out other noises as they travel through the air to the ear.

The idea is still very much in the development stage and has now been transferred over to I3P where work is continuing.

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