Innovation Exchange challenge: Underground Tunnelling Techniques

Innovation Exchange seeks innovative solutions for discreetly producing underground pathways in hostile and constrained subterranean environments.

Opportunity Details


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Selected solution(s) will be trialled in pilot studies, with the possibility of further adoption upon successful trials, co-developed with the challenge holder.


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Underground tunnelling presents an array of opportunities and challenges, so the MoD would like to know how technologies and capabilities in this area could be better harnessed for future operations. In particular there is an interest in how to better access hostile and constrained subterranean environments. The latest HMGCC Co-Creation challenge is to demonstrate ways of producing subterranean pathways, preferably greater than 60mm diameter, with minimal chance of being detected. Organisations are being asked to apply if they have the capability / technology to contribute to early and ambitious concept demonstrators in a 12 week project. HMGCC Co-Creation will provide funding for time, material, overheads and other indirect expenses.


There is a long history of industry, civil authorities and military using underground access to their advantage. The MoD is interested in using novel, automated methods to produce underground tunnels, opening new routes of access into otherwise difficult to reach locations. It is critical that any methods to produce these have a low probability of detection from adversaries.

The gap

One example of a current mature technology is Directional drilling (reference enbridge); Horizontal Directional Drilling (HDD) rigs are industrial tools to create underground bore holes for the oil and gas industry, telecoms cabling and pipework. However HDDs are unsuited to MoD purposes due to their size, noise levels and typical need for direct human operation or manual preparation of groundworks before starting.

Example use cases

The year is 2035 and a terrorist group has entered a country, taking a dozen civilians hostage and moving them to a new location. The country is a UK ally and has asked for MoD assistance to free the hostages. The country’s military has tracked the terrorists and hostages to an underground facility with only one entrance and exit. Alongside a negotiation period, the country’s military starts to plan hostage release, in consultation with MOD.

The MoD deploys its Subterranean Access Pathway, or SAPA, machinery – all with the assumption this activity could be observed. During the night, a small team moves the SAPA into place 250m away from the facility. The SAPA is then started, this time to create a diameter of 60mm but with the capability to bore up to a diameter of 600mm. It operates quietly, creating very low seismic activity and no people are needed to keep it running. As it bores, it identifies and navigates around cabling and pipework, directed to the underground facility. The SAPA notifies users it has completed the job. The users verify the underground facility has been accessed and tunnelling activity has not been detected. Once this has been confirmed, the operation is handed back to the local country’s military to safely conclude the hostage scenario.

The challenge

This is an ambitious project to demonstrate new ways to discreetly create underground pathways, therefore future thinking and highly innovative ideas are welcomed. By the end of the 12 weeks, applicants should be able to demonstrate proposed solutions with a practical demonstration of a characteristic proof of concept to Technology Readiness Level 3, with a plan to reach the 2035 vision. From this, follow-on funding from the customer may be made available.

Proposals should consider the following requirements:

  • Low risk of detection e.g. low noise, little seismic activity, small and/or concealable footprint and requires minimal number of people to operate.
  • A hole with a diameter of between 60 – 600 mm, proposals with diameters outside of this scope will be considered if potential can be shown to scale up the diameter in the future.
  • A scalable system, i.e. it could eventually (although not in initial demonstrators) tunnel across several hundreds of metres underground.
  • Consideration given to types of underground material to tunnel through, such as top soil, clay, rock, but not necessarily concrete.
  • Consideration given to how this could autonomously operate and navigate underground obstacles such as cabling and pipework, or with a plan to achieve this.

Proposals not within scope are demonstrations of existing off the shelf unmodified industrial practices, horizon scanning and paper exercises.


This challenge is open to sole innovators, industry, academic and research organisations of all types and sizes. There is no requirement for security clearances. Solution providers or direct collaboration from countries listed by the UK government under trade sanctions and/or arms embargoes, are not eligible for HMGCC Co-Creation challenges.

Rewards & Benefits

Successful applicants will be invited to a pitch day, giving them a chance to meet the HMGCC Co-Creation team and pitch the proposal during a 20 minute presentation, followed by questions. After the pitch day, a final funding decision will be made. For unsuccessful applicants, feedback will be given in a timely manner.

View the terms and conditions for the challenge here.

Related programme

Innovation Exchange

Innovation Exchange

Innovate UK Innovation Exchange is a cross-sector programme supporting innovation transfer by matching industry challenges to innovative companies from other sectors. It does this by putting large businesses with technical needs in contact with companies who have the right innovative solutions, for faster development of novel solutions.


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