Funding competition SBRI: innovation in automated tunnel examination

UK businesses can apply for a share of up to £1.5 million, plus VAT, for projects that develop and demonstrate innovation to automate the examination of tunnels.

This competition is now closed.

Register and apply online

Competition sections


This is a single phase Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) competition and is open to organisations of all sizes based in the UK, EU, EEA, USA or Canada.

Network Rail to invest up to £1.5 million, plus VAT. This will support the development and demonstration of new capability in automated tunnel examination. The competition process is managed by Innovate UK, part of UK Research and Innovation.

The competition supports the objectives of Network Rail’s Control Period 6 (CP6) funding strategy for research and development. The aim of this competition is to improve the accuracy, efficiency and safety of tunnel examinations resulting in a safer and more reliable operational railway.

Your project should reduce the time taken to complete examinations through improved automation and increased repeatability and reproducibility of data. It must also mitigate the risks associated with lower quality examinations due to challenging access constraints and human centric bias.

The competition closes at midday 12pm UK time on the deadline stated.

Funding type


Project size

Your project’s total eligible costs must be between £350,000 and £500,000, plus VAT.

Who can apply

Your project

Your project’s total eligible costs must be between £350,000 and £500,000, plus VAT.

Projects must plan to start by 1 March 2020 and end by 31 August 2021. They can last between 12 and 18 months.

Lead organisation

Your organisation must:

  • be an organisation of any size
  • carry out its project work in the UK

Your organisation must be based in the UK, EU, EEA, USA or Canada. If it is based in the USA or Canada, you must have a legal presence in the EU.

Your organisation can work alone or, if you do not have all the required expertise, you can work with others as subcontractors.

Your project team must include organisations with expertise in infrastructure inspection, surveying and measurement. Teams must also demonstrate the ability to provide access and safety supervision for any plant or equipment used. You should give clear details of these organisations and their expertise in your application.

We expect your demonstration to be in an operational railway environment, however, we understand it may be a challenge to access railway assets and railway organisations. Therefore, you will need to develop your own relationships with organisations with appropriate expertise. To get help building your team, you may want to:


We have allocated up to £1.5 million, plus VAT, to fund innovation projects in this competition.

Successful projects will be 100% funded. The funding is provided by Network Rail and the competition process is managed by Innovate UK, part of UK Research and Innovation.

Applications must have at least 50% of the contract value attributed directly and exclusively for research and development (R&D) services. For this competition, your application should focus on prototyping and field-testing your product or service in a representative railway environment. R&D does not include:

  • commercial development activities such as quantity production
  • supply to establish commercial viability or to recover R&D costs
  • integration, customisation or incremental adaptations and improvements to existing products or processes

Portfolio approach

For this competition, Innovate UK and Network Rail will use a portfolio approach to maximise the benefit of the investment of public funding. The portfolio will be spread across a range of project durations and project costs, including demonstrating value for money.

Your proposal

The aim of this competition is to develop a solution for automating tunnel examinations, and to demonstrate this on the live railway. The performance of the system will be compared to conventional manual inspections as part of the validation. The team will be required to share the technical specification with Network Rail as part of the deliverable report.

In normal circumstances you will keep all rights to your intellectual property (IP).

Innovate UK will be responsible for funding your activity and monitoring your project. Network Rail will be available to provide guidance and support. You must invite Network Rail to project meetings. A data sharing agreement is in place between Innovate UK and Network Rail. Details of your application and progress reports will be shared between the 2 organisations.

Specific themes

The project will aim to improve the accuracy and efficiency of tunnel examinations. The new system will:

  • reduce the need for manual examinations
  • remove human centric bias
  • inspect both surface and sub-surface defects
  • use machine learning to identify and track defects
  • remove the need for human review and analysis
  • output data in a format that aligns with the Tunnel Condition Marking Index (TCMI) which will be made available to you
  • be defined in conjunction with the definitions of Rail Industry Readiness Levels (RIRL)
  • align with Network Rail IT systems
  • enable engineers to view and analyse results

Additional information on the technical objectives of the project are included in the supporting technical document pack. This is available to applicants, along with information on relevant Network Rail standards and protocols in the secure download site once you start your application.

Projects we will not fund

We are not funding projects that:

  • are not likely to be successfully exploited by the rail industry to deliver benefits to rail or light-rail organisations and their customers
  • do not create a significant change in the level of innovation available in the rail industry
  • are not high maturity
  • have high technical risk
  • have collaborations that cannot effectively deliver a demonstration in a railway environment
  • do not have a demonstration phase, offering the customer a chance to use the innovation and give feedback
  • include anything that presents a risk to the operational railway or safety of workers
  • use equipment that needs contact with the tunnel lining

16 September 2019
Competition opens
19 September 2019
London briefing event
6 November 2019 12:00pm
Registration closes
13 November 2019 12:00pm
Competition closes
6 January 2020
Interview week begins
13 January 2020
Applicants notified
10 February 2020
Contracts awarded

Before you start

To apply:

  • register online using the green button
  • get your unique application number and form by entering the username and password we email to you
  • read the guidance for applicants for this competition
  • consider attending the briefing event listed in ‘Dates’
  • complete and upload your online application to our secure server using Microsoft Word

We will not accept late submissions. Your application is confidential. Innovate UK may share details of your application with Network Rail , in keeping with our privacy notice. Network Rail will also see your project’s progress reports and will expect to be invited to the quarterly progress meetings.

A selected panel of experts, including Network Rail representatives, will assess the quality of your application.

Applicants who are successful in their applications will be invited to interviews in January. More details are provided in the guidance for applicants.

Background and further information

Network Rail is responsible for over 600 operational tunnels throughout the network, which is approximately 335km of structures. The majority of tunnels currently need a manual examination every year. Examinations performed by humans are time consuming, costly and can be dangerous for workers.

The project seeks to:

  • replace manual tunnel examinations
  • reduce the need for the workforce to access existing infrastructure
  • increase efficiencies
  • deliver a safer and more automated method of examination

The project will build on previous work undertaken during Control Period 5 by investing in the development of autonomous robotic examination systems, and analytical tools to better capture and manage examination data.

These new technologies are predicted to significantly improve the cost and increase the safety of tunnel examinations. The project will also seek to address the repeatability and reproducibility issues associated with the human centric bias of examinations, resulting in better asset condition data, a more accurate understanding of asset condition, and improved targeting of detailed examinations, maintenance and repair work.

Academic research suggests that cost savings could be in the order of 80% in comparison to the cost of manual examinations.

About SBRI competitions

SBRI provides innovative solutions to challenges faced by the public sector. This can lead to better public services and improved efficiency and effectiveness. SBRI supports economic growth and enables the development of innovative products and services. It does this through the public procurement of research and development (R&D). SBRI generates new business opportunities for companies and provides a route to market for their ideas. It also bridges the seed funding gap experienced by many early-stage companies.

For more information on the railway industry’s priorities, please refer to:

Extra help

You can find information on how to enter this competition in the invitation to tender document, which is available for download on our secure site after registration.

If you want help to find a project partner, contact the Knowledge Transfer Network.

If you need more information, email us at or call the competition helpline on 0300 321 4357 between 9am and 5:30pm, Monday to Friday.

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