BRITISH Waterways has trialled the use of mini cranes to replace and maintain canal lock gates, as it seeks to replace a 25-year-old system.
The move could slash maintenance time from three days to three hours, creating huge potential cost savings for the canal operator.
BW engineers currently use a combination of A-frames and chain blocks to lift the 5 m-high gates out of the water for repairs.
According to technical director Ian White, the remoteness of the canal locations and the narrow width of the towpaths has previously made it impossible to use any kind of crane.
But the Unic A506CL demonstrated by distributor Unic Cranes Europe to a team of BW technical staff last week is mounted on a crawler undercarriage for rough terrain access and has a travel width of up to 1.4 m to enable it to be driven up the towpath.
Once at the location, the 3-tonne capacity crane can be positioned with its four outriggers astride the lock.This allows it to lift the gates, which weigh in at just under 3 tonnes. From here, the crane can then slew them round onto a barge, ready for repairing or replacing.
With three million tonnes of freight now using the canal network, minimising the time when the canal is closed has become a key issue for BW.
But there are also major potential savings in labour, since it currently takes six workers one day just to erect the A-frame, whereas the mini crane takes 10 minutes.
Unic's joint chief Gill Riley said: 'There are big health and safety advantages to using a crane and we think ours is the only one that can handle this.'