Hi-tech deployed to check for further collapses and avoid possible tragedies
When a 50ft-deep sinkhole opened up on the busiest route into Tel Aviv on Saturday evening, the first priority – after sealing it off – was to make sure there were no more.
Sinkholes appear without warning and can have catastrophic consequences. They are almost always caused by human intervention – digging of some sort – which means that if one opens up, there’s the chance another might.
Thankfully a startup down the road from the sinkhole on the main Ayalon Highway – based less than a mile from the scene – has combined AI with existing technology that sees through the road surface to provide a super-detailed 3D map of what’s underground. There’s no need to dig or drill.
Experts from Exodigo, one of three companies who carried out immediate geophysical surveys at the site, were able to provide initial findings after just two hours.
“It’s like doing a CT scan and MRI and ultrasound all at once to create one image,” Aurelia Setton, chief business officer at the company tells NoCamels. It combines 3D imaging and AI technologies with GPR (ground penetrating radar) and electro magnetic sensors, to give a clear picture.
They were immediately able to identify two areas of concern, which were drilled and filled.
Exodigo specializes in non-intrusive mapping – finding out what’s underground without the need for actual excavations, which can be time-consuming, inaccurate and expensive, as well as dangerous.
Much of their work is with construction, mining and utility companies in the US and in Israel, where it works on the Tel Aviv Light Rail, currently being built.
Exodigo identifies water and gas pipes, electricity cables, water sources and other buried obstacles that could cause leaks, explosions or unexpected delays.
But mapping sinkholes is a new area for the company. They’re developing technology that isn’t yet commercially available, but they were able to test it on the Tel Aviv sinkhole.
“We basically got notice of a five square meter hole on the busiest portion of the highway in the center of Tel Aviv,” said Setton.
“We have unique technology to discover what’s happened underground in a non-invasive way. So they called us to try to assess the risk around the sinkhole.”
She said the challenge was to analyze other areas of potential weakness before reopening the highway – which Ayalon Highways, the road maintenance authority, was able to do several hours later.
“We are also developing a product for sinkholes, although it is not yet commercially ready.
“We were able to identify a couple of areas that had potential disruption in the ground. Ayalon Highways decided to be extra cautious and reinforce them.”
Exodigo collects vast amounts of data from the scans, then processes it remotely to provide an accurate underground map.
“We were able to do an initial assessment on site within a couple of hours,” said Setton. “Usually, we don’t really work in emergency situations, we focus on detection for construction and for underground discovery, prior to initiating a project.”
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The company was launched in May 2021 by three veterans of the IDF’s elite 8200 and 81 intelligence units – Jeremy Suard, Ido Gonen and Yogev Shifman.
News reports have suggested they drew on their experience in identifying terror tunnels used to reach Israel, but they have declined to comment.
They say they use established sensor technologies, but have a unique way of harnessing their power.
“We’re unique in the way that we use existing sensors,” said Setton. “But in our approach, we combine them together all at once to create one simple, accurate and complete map.”
The Tel Aviv sinkhole appeared on the Ayalon Highway, close to the HaShalom Interchange, by the Azrieli Center and HaKirya IDF base.
It caused traffic chaos, coinciding with the end of the Sabbath, when roads in Israel always get busy.
The hole was filled with concrete overnight, and although the highway itself reopened at 3am on Sunday, the interchange itself remains closed.
There has been much speculation about the cause of the sinkhole. Tamir Cohen, a former adviser to prime minister Naftali Bennett, now VP of strategy and business operations at Exodigo, wouldn’t be drawn.
“Speculation is exactly the opposite of what we do,” he says. “We just come to a site we scan it with the best sensor in the world, we do data acquisition and then we decipher it.”
Exodigo says the future of underground mapping is using non-intrusive methods. The company describes its technology as “a revolutionary, subsurface imaging platform, providing a digital geolocated 3D map of buried assets”.
It says it combines multi-sensor fusion and artificial intelligence to dramatically improve speed and accuracy reducing damages and the costs associated with unnecessary excavation. It uses drones as well as carts to carry out its mapping.
Two other companies surveyed the sinkhole area. Amit Ronen, a geophysicist and the CEO of Geotec, also based in Tel Aviv, said he was on site on Saturday evening and carried out his own assessment using GPR (ground-penetrating radar).
Sinkholes are not common in Israel, but in July of this year, 32-year-old Klil Kimhi died when he was sucked into a 40ft hole that opened up in a swimming pool in Karmei Yosef, central Israel, that had been built without a permit.
In June 2021, three cars were swallowed up and seven more were damaged when a sinkhole opened up in the parking lot of the Shaare Zedek Medical Center, in Jerusalem. There were no injuries. Construction work had been taking place nearby on a new route into the capital.
Further afield, at least one person died when a massive sinkhole swallowed an entire three-story building in Guatemala City, capital of Guatemala, in 2010 after Tropical Storm Agatha. The hole was described as 60ft wide and 30 stories deep.
And in March 2013, Jeff Bush died when a sinkhole opened up under his home in Tampa, Florida, USA. “Everything was gone,” his brother Jeremy told CNN. “My brother’s bed, my brother’s dresser, my brother’s TV. My brother was gone.”