Making AI algorithms accessible to infrastructure designers
May 21, 2020
We founded Continuum Industries back in summer 2018 because we saw a real need to give engineers more powerful tools and techniques to design big, complex infrastructure projects better and faster. Each year, the world spends trillions of dollars on infrastructure projects and all of the big decisions that determine how much these projects cost and how long they take to deliver happen in the design stage. Getting this stuff right matters and it’s not easy.
We’ve been quietly working ever since to build the Optioneer, an artificial intelligence tool that engineers and planners can use to design linear infrastructure schemes like railways, roads, pipelines and power lines. Optioneer allows its users to automate their existing design process and use an AI-driven set of algorithms to explore millions of possible design options. This saves not just the time but also money spent on delivering infrastructure.
We help to cut as much as 85% of costs associated with the early-stage design and reduce the construction costs by up to 15% — that’s rather significant when considering multi-billion dollar projects.
We’re now entering into a new phase where our technology is becoming widely available for design and planning teams around the world. To support the launch, last week we announced a £1.5M investment round led by Credo Ventures and Playfair Capital.
This funding has already allowed us to hire some amazing people who joined us over the past few weeks to help get the product ready for a public launch. The investment also sets the expectation for what we want to achieve — we want to move the starting point of every new linear infrastructure project from a piece of paper into our optimisation engine.
Where we come from
Before founding Continuum Industries, our team ran Edinburgh University’s Hyperloop Team called Hyped where we built hyperloop prototypes, competed at the SpaceX Pod Competition and at Virgin Hyperloop One Global Challenge — we actually did quite well in the former and won the latter. It was the hyperloop moonshot that made us realise the socio-economic value of infrastructure and forced us to think about better ways of taking infrastructure projects from ideas to reality.
As a team of engineering geeks, we’ve been in awe of how new cities were built and grew around transport links, how Roman roads and aqueducts supported the rise of a huge empire, how modern railways and roads help millions of people get to work every day and how pipeline networks give us clean water in our taps whenever we need it.
We also had a sense of frustration when confronted with the fact that the typical state for 9 out of 10 of infrastructure projects has long been to be behind schedule and over budget. We all know the stories of new railway lines costing many times more than anticipated or new roads being delayed for years despite the soul-destroying traffic on the existing network.
In fact, infrastructure and construction have seen very little digitisation and the sectors’ productivity has remained pretty much flat over the last few decades despite growth in other industries. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising to us that infrastructure projects get out of control so often given that we still use decades-old engineering methods to deal with technical, environmental and social challenges of the 21st century.
When speaking with engineers and planners over the last few years, we’ve seen some fascinating examples of people creating custom tools with excel spreadsheets bolted to Google Earth, AutoCAD, ArcGIS and others. This approach does the job but that’s no longer good enough in the face of the growing global population and the environmental collapse. We simply need to do better.
In 2018 we began developing the Optioneer and raised an initial investment from Gareth Williams, former CEO and co-founder of Skyscanner. We started out with something that had no standards, no best practices, basically a blank canvas — hyperloop. Hyperloop is very much a linear infrastructure system and developing for it allowed us to come up with the best way to run the design process without the bias of legacy approaches.
Fundamentally, each type of linear infrastructure is composed of multiple repeated sections that together transport something from A to B within a specific corridor. This approach allowed us to start with hyperloop as the inspiration and quickly expand the product to railways, pipelines and other infrastructure types. You can read more about how we use the old idea of systems thinking in our recent blog post here.
Our mission and next steps
“Continuum Industries is fundamentally changing the way our teams approach infrastructure design and optioneering. Combining the best of human and machine intelligence is where our industry is headed.”
Neill Brauders, Head of Augmented Delivery, Mott Macdonald
Our mission is to supercharge productivity of the infrastructure industry to meet the global needs for critical, well-designed infrastructure. We enable infrastructure design and planning teams to rapidly generate and iterate on millions of ways their projects could be built. The idea is to help them find the best option in a fraction of the time it takes for the conventional process to evaluate less than a dozen different scenarios.
We have now completed two years of development and testing of the Optioneer and we will be rolling it out to more engineering and planning teams around the world over the next few months. We know that some people like to stay ahead of the curve, which is why we are opening access to an early adopter programme.
Over the rest of this year, we are going to keep investing in making the Optioneer easily accessible through any web browser and expanding support to power lines, gas and hydrogen pipelines, high-speed railways and roads. We are also adding features that support remote work and make life easier for distributed teams.
So far this journey has been exciting but quiet, mainly spent writing code and emails in front of computer screens as well as on countless trains and planes to meet with customers. We are now entering a new chapter in our company life and we’re very grateful to those who have supported us along the way: our team who worked relentlessly, our customers for embracing the change and our investors, for believing in better infrastructure and us.