Ehteshamul Haque, Director Asia Pacific, Digital Control, Inc., USA

In the era of digital transformation, the role of technological infrastructure has become central to the development and connectivity of nations. One such critical element of infrastructure is the optical fibre cable (OFC) network. These invisible highways of information are key to our interconnected world, ensuring seamless data flow across cities, states and even countries.

Horizontal directional drilling (HDD) technology offers a non-intrusive way to install underground cables, pipes and conduits. It has enabled India to navigate the complex urban and rural terrains, making OFC installation both feasible and efficient. The push for 5G, fibre-to-the-x (FTTX), smart cities and other such projects is creating new challenges and opportunities in the market for installation of OFC using HDD technology. We will take this opportunity to discuss just two major challenges and possible solutions.

A constrained area needs machines with smaller footprints: The complexity of India’s urban and rural landscapes poses unique challenges for the installation of OFC networks. When it comes to FTTX installations, the requirement of accessing narrow colonies and alleyways demands an even more specialised approach.

A typical Indian job site uses a 20-to-25-tonne capacity drill rig with a footprint of around 6.7 metres by 2.4 metres. While this machinery proves sufficient for most city areas and backhauls, the requirement of extending the OFC network inside sm­all colonies and confined spaces deman­ds a different solution.

The answer lies in smaller drilling ma­chines, with footprints as compact as 3.9 metres by 1.5 metres. These smaller ma­chines are designed specifically to address the challenge of constrained areas, providing the flexibility needed to install OFC networks in hard-to-reach locations.

However, the availability of such ma­chines is currently low in India. It is a classic problem of supply and demand; there is a reluctance to invest in specialised equipment without assurance of steady demand. But as the need for FTTX installations gr­o­ws and the recognition of specific requirements becomes more widespread, the dynamics are poised to change.

The other solution to this problem a technology known as an “electric pit la­unch machine”, which has a size of around 1 m X 0.9 m. These small machines, however, need to be put inside the pit and have the capability of drilling only up to 25m length.

Once the demand for these specialised smaller machines becomes widespread, co­ntractors will recognise the value and ne­cessity of these investments. The market can then respond accordingly, providing the required tools to navigate the unique challenges of India’s diverse landscapes.

The gradual adaptation to these smaller footprint machines is not merely a logistical adjustment, but a strategic move that reflects an understanding of the specific requirements of OFC installation in India. It signifies a responsiveness to local conditions, a willingness to innovate and an ability to adapt to the unique challenges presented by India’s multifaceted terrain.

Congested underground areas and utility cuts: One of the challenges faced by utility owners is potential damage to an already installed utility during the installation of new utilities, as well as damage to their own utilities by other operators. Such situations result from lack of planning and not keeping records of utility installations. We need proper subsurface utility engineering survey to avoid damage to existing utilities.

Further, we need to plan our new bores to avoid existing utilities, and record the location of an utility being installed in real time. The Department of Teleco­mm­unications has launched an app called “Call Before you Dig”, which you can ch­eck before starting work to find out about existing utilities as well as log your own utility, to protect it from future damage.

We would like to introduce TeraTrak R1, which is meant to map the elevation of the drill path as well as plan the bore path to ensure correct pilot bore and utility installation. The tool allows you to do real-time, accurate terrain mapping; helps you with planning the bore path; does all the bore planning calculations; helps you with your rig placement; and most importantly, allows you to collaborate with your team.

One of the other issues with installations is the lack of accurate-as-built drawings, which requires extensive patrolling of routes, anecdotal knowledge of the utility route and an acceptance of several times higher utility strikes per kilometre (over seven strikes per kilometre, compared to the global average of 0.4) than international standards. Tracking faults and precision repair are also difficult and necessitate new installations in many cases. The average life of fibre assets is also reduced significantly due to these challenges.

We recommend the use of machine-generated “As Built” drawings. There are provisions for cloud-based recording of “As Built” drawings as well, but this needs to be considered in light of the data security concerns of critical infrastructure.