Four Things You Need to Know about Probe Drilling and Pre-Grouting

This blog is the first in a series called “Insights in Brief” that aims to boil down complex concepts into bite-sized facts and key points.

While probe drilling and pre-grouting have a long and successful history in drill and blast applications, their adoption for TBM technology has been more tenuous. Continuous probe drilling and pre-grouting was first pioneered in Norwegian hard rock D&B tunnels, where they have since been used with great success to detect ground conditions and consolidate weak rock ahead of the excavation face. If these methods have great potential to allow TBMs to excavate in difficult conditions, then there must be a knowledge gap. Here, we highlight four key things to know in order to get the most out of probe drilling and pre-grouting.

Number 1: There are always Pros and Cons

Much of the reluctance to adopt probing and grouting is based on a belief that the overall impact on the project schedule and TBM advance does not usually make up for the benefits provided. However, the benefits can be dramatic when compared to alternatives such as stuck TBMs, bypass tunnels, and other costly delays to the project schedule. The ability of a grout curtain to cut off or reduce water ingress and stabilize weak zones is unique to the method. This result has also been proven on hundreds of D&B projects over decades. When tunnel projects such as India’s Tapovan-Vishnugad Hydroelectric Project are considered, where a Double Shield TBM was brought to a halt following a massive influx of mud and water, the benefits seem clear.

There are other barriers towards industry acceptance besides time, however, and that is the perception of cost (both of course being related). In particular, in mountainous conditions or when tunneling downhill, probing may be the only practical approach towards risk mitigation, and pre-grouting may be the best possible option to control water inflows. When the cost of a stuck TBM is considered as the alternative, continuous probe drilling is looking pretty good.

Number 2: The Right Program and Machine Design can make all the Difference

Though the industry view of probing and pre-grouting tends toward the conservative, there are multiple ways to reduce impact to time and budgets while maximizing the benefits:

Plan and optimize the downtime for maintenance and cutter changes to minimize the downtime caused by probing and grouting
Proper scheduling may be one of the easiest ways to reduce downtime compared with current industry standards. To efficiently perform probe drilling and potentially pre-grouting in a TBM process, it is essential to plan the interventions and remove them from the critical path of the TBM process. Detailed planning should be done to coordinate the maintenance and cutter changing stops to the probing intervals. As an example a daily maintenance shift could be sufficient time to complete a grouting umbrella, with the correct TBM set up.

Analyze the drilling performance in detail
To get the most out of probe drilling and pre-grouting, detailed measurements of the advance rates of the probe drilling and the grouting pressure should be done. These measurements enable proper prediction of the ground ahead of the TBM. The drilling could be measured manually or automatically with Measurement While Drilling (MWD) systems, which are commonly used in D&B applications. The MWD system is used to analyze the rock in detail (hardness, water content, rock mass properties, etc.) and can be used to generate 3D-models of the rock mass in order to decide on the rock support or for documentation purposes.

Choose the right TBM Design
Ultimately, choosing the right TBM type can significantly cut time and cost. A customized machine, whether shielded or open-type, can be designed for accurate and continuous probe drilling. While it might seem that a shield machine would have limited drilling trajectories, machines like the Single Shield TBM for New York’s Delaware Aqueduct Repair offer 360-degree probe drilling paths using multiple drills, as well as probe drilling under pressure using down-the-hole hammers through ports sealed with ball joints. No matter what is needed, planning during the TBM design phase will most certainly cut downtime and costs later on.

Number 3: It has been Successful on Difficult TBM Projects


Though probe drilling and pre-grouting have not yet been used extensively on TBM projects, successful examples can be found worldwide. At Canada’s Seymour Capilano Water Filtration Tunnels, using two Robbins Main Beam TBMs, 100% probe drilling (with minimum overlap) and pre-excavation grouting were specified as part of the twin down drives of the Seymour Capilano tunnel project. This was due to the down gradient of the tunnel under high cover where there was a moderate risk of encountering significant inflows. Fortunately the actual groundwater inflows were much less than originally anticipated and so very limited pre-excavation grouting was required. Probe drilling was continuously carried out during TBM excavation, and while it had an impact on progress in the early days, once the crews became familiar with the equipment and procedures the work activity became efficient, and was successfully implemented with minimum impact to progress. Success stories like this are common in deep rock tunnels around the world.

Number 4: Knowledge Level is Key to Success

As with many developments in the tunneling industry, probe drilling and pre-grouting are seen from the view of risk sharing. Risk sharing could entail clearly defined specifications and payment provisions that allow for fair compensation to the contractor so they will not be reluctant to accept the approach, for example. Clear design and environmental criteria need to be established, so the execution of probe drilling and pre-excavation grouting involve the opinion of the contractor, the design engineer, and equipment supplier. In some cases, for example, the contractor may choose to accept moderate inflows that are manageable and do not impact excavation progress.

Training in the operations of probe drilling and pre-grouting will also necessarily lead to greater acceptance. While there is some training available at colleges that offer mining and tunneling degree programs, much of the training for such operations is necessarily hands-on and experience based. With an experienced workforce, the negatives of probe drilling and pre-grouting are greatly reduced. Such hands-on training is currently being provided by Robbins on several projects using a combination of classroom instruction and jobsite operation for crews who are not familiar with the methods.

Ultimately, the adoption of probe drilling and pre-grouting on TBMs is something that must be recognized as an overall benefit to the industry in difficult ground conditions. The technology is well developed in D&B tunneling, and it has been field-tested for decades. It is, in our opinion, the best method of accurately detecting and treating poor ground conditions in front of the TBM.

Desiree Willis