Digitizing Tunnel Monitoring for the Construction Phase

Worldsensing joined Jim Rush, the editor and publisher of Tunnel Business Magazine, for a webinar to discuss how wireless monitoring systems help track performance, identify issues and decrease operational risk during tunnel construction projects. Worldsensing’s Marketing Manager, Karen Figueroa, moderated a panel of speakers featuring:


Christina Lafuente: Geotechnical Engineer and Project Management Consultant for several TBM tunneling projects in Spain and the US.
Dr. Dots Oyenuga: Geotechnical and tunneling expert with over 40 years of experience in geotechnical and tunneling instrumentation.
David Gomez: Expert on wireless monitoring in geotechnical contexts and Industrial Engineer with over 7 years of experience helping industrial companies to transform their operations through IoT technologies in the US.

Safety has historically been one of the most critical challenges faced by the tunnelling industry, especially given that half of all construction projects still use manual data readings – which is both risky and costly – or cables, which can be expensive and inconvenient, especially with regards to stopping traffic – meaning that in tunneling projects the laying down of cables leads to projects having to be put on hold. In contrast, wireless systems increase efficiency and reduce costs, making the monitoring process easier through introducing automation. Companies no longer need to think about how they’re going to take readings. The automatic, remote monitoring process makes the workplace safer and improves compliance with industry regulations and standards. The experts on this webinar explore how wireless monitoring can be used to enhance risk management and improve instrumentation and monitoring in tunneling projects, helping operators to tackle the safety challenge head-on.

Real-time insights for active risk-management

Active risk-management based on real-time information in tunneling projects can only be implemented through IoT wireless monitoring. David notes that “wireless technology is nothing new in the geotechnical and construction industries, however the wireless radios and systems that have been around for the last 20 years are not optimized for the challenges of technical monitoring”.

Modern systems using new IoT technologies for technical monitoring have advanced things considerably – giving operators greater control over how much data they are collecting from each sensor and when. Not every wireless monitoring system covers all bases. According to David, truly effective systems should have three main characteristics:

  • Wireless-ness
  • Long-range signal
  • Low-power consumption


In civil engineering, the ability to continuously transmit data over large distances without having to use physical infrastructure (such as cables) or risk batteries failing, is key to effective instrumentation and monitoring. Wireless signals need to be able to reach long distances underground and go through walls as thick as 4m in urban buildings or manholes. “They also need to be low maintenance and durable – having to replace batteries, for instance, means excavation downtime and putting workers lives at risk”, David points out. For genuinely automated readings, data nodes need to be able to be configured easily and to be connected to gateways without constant maintenance.

Wireless monitoring to eliminate potential incidents

In Christina’s experience, wireless monitoring is increasingly popular for tunneling projects:
“Many of the challenges present in tunneling projects could be significantly reduced with a wireless, real-time monitoring system because the latter allows tunnel excavation operators to respond earlier to potentially negative situations, permitting operations to be adjusted accordingly and remedial actions reduced in the long-run”.

This, in turn, reduces the downtime of excavation works, which saves major costs, giving wireless monitoring systems almost a guaranteed return on investment as, in the end, their total cost is minimal compared to the cost of remedial actions and system downtime. With this type of system, the direct costs of installation and maintenance of other wired or technically complex systems are significantly reduced.

Four elements are needed in order to adopt an IoT wireless monitoring system:

  1. An internal IoT champion
  2. A total end-to-end wireless monitoring system – an advanced IoT wireless monitoring system which captures all sensor data used in your project
  3. Devices such as data nodes
  4. A proof of concept initial test phase to make sure that all the hardware and software can be carefully tested and adjusted according to actual conditions

Real-life tunneling projects

Based on his experience working on the LA Metro Purple Line 2 Project, Dr. Oyenuga highlights the advantages of using low-power, wireless, real-time monitoring for this kind of tunneling project: “A lot of tunnel projects have a mishmash of systems. They could use 3 or 4 systems because operators feel like they have to use a specific system for a certain type of sensor. On our project, for the first time, we are using an integrated, automated data acquisition system. We are using this system for pretty much everything – it’s being used for every single monitoring sensor we’re deploying.”

pastedImage0Map of LA Metro Purple Line 2 Project

Dealing with risks effectively

Tunneling excavation project operators’ principal pain points are typically occupational health and safety hazards, alongside the need to comply with strict and costly insurance regulations, and the need to carry out constant monitoring without incurring too much expense. Specific challenges in this sector include the dispersion of critical points that need to be monitored across a large area, a continually changing construction environment, and, if using sensors placed on cables, the need to make adjustments to those cables at every stage of the project. The way to deal with these challenges most efficiently and precisely is through aggregating real-time information, which accurately describes the performance state of the tunneling project and can be used by decision-makers to implement the most appropriate action, and instigating proactive risk-management approaches with alarm thresholds and response plans. One of the only ways to do this is through implementing an IoT wireless monitoring system, which is low-power, low-maintenance, durable, compatible with different types of sensors and monitoring software, and continuously gathers data in real-time.

What’s next for the tunneling industry?

The future of tunneling is in IoT – a technology that offers operators the opportunity to generate greater efficiency through digitizing their operations. The type of real-time operational management currently enabled by wireless monitoring solutions will eventually allow for the creation of digital twins. These “videogame” models of the tunneling site will allow operators to plan ahead for any possible incidents and implement actions to prevent them first virtually, and then literally, improving the efficiency of their operations and reducing the risks of tunneling significantly.