World's first flying drone for plugging pipeline leaks

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Worldwide, 25 per cent of drinking water is lost through leaking water pipelines. To tackle this problem, Talib Alhinai, a research postgraduate at Imperial College London’s Aerial Robotics Laboratory, and his colleagues created the world’s first flying drone able to plug pipeline leaks.

  • Award-winning technology is the world’s first autonomous flying vehicle able to plug pipeline leaks
  • The technology has multiple applications, such as in the oil and gas industry
  • The system could increase time and cost savings while improving safety
  • Part of wider research into autonomous drones capable of printing structures in 3D while in flight

Talib’s devices are equipped with a stabilisation system that allows the drones to approach objects and deposit material in mid-air, making them more stable, robust and precise than conventional drones.

The aircraft have a payload of lightweight builders’ foam, carried in liquid form. Once the drone is in position, the foam is released, expanding to 25 times its original size – quickly plugging leaks without need for hands-on human intervention. The technology has multiple applications, such as in the oil and gas industry.

Talib’s work was supervised by his PhD adviser and director of the Aerial Robotics Lab, Dr Mirko Kovac, whose leadership has been pivotal in the development of versatile autonomous flying robots capable of printing structures in 3D while in flight. EPSRC has invested over £5 million in Dr Kovac’s research for the aerial manufacturing project, which is also supported by industrial partners.

Compared to current methods requiring humans to maintain pipelines, the team’s approach offers major time and cost savings while simultaneously reducing risks to engineers when doing inspection and repair tasks, especially of chemical leaks from pipeline networks.

Talib was part of the Build Drone team together with Pisak Chermprayong, Rob Siddall and Mirko Kovac, who won first prize, and a cheque for one million dihrams (around £200,000), at the 2016 UAE Drones for Good competition. In September 2017 the MIT Technology Review featured Talib Alhinai on its list of 35 Innovators Under 35, selected from more than 1,100 applicants. He was also named as one of Forbes business magazine’s 30 under 30 list of young European leaders, inventors and entrepreneurs who are transforming society. He later won a Future Star award from Arabian Business magazine.

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Dr Mirko Kovac’s research at Imperial College London’s Aerial Robotics Laboratory has widespread applications, including disaster relief, where a swarm of drones could quickly fly out to a devastated region and work together to 3D-print shelters using local materials.

The technology could also benefit the construction industry where drone swarms could be assigned more dangerous building tasks, which may reduce workplace accidents. In the distant future, these drones may be useful in the colonisation of other planets like Mars, where they could be sent in advance to construct habitats for use when colonists arrive.

In a related project, funded by EPSRC, Dr Kovac and his team have developed AquaMAV, a prototype flying drone that can monitor water quality, record environmental data, or help in emergencies such as major oil leaks by diving into oceans, lakes and reservoirs to collect samples – and then leaping back into the sky. The prototype draws its inspiration from nature – specifically the behaviour of gannets and the movement of flying fish.

Gannets are the largest seabirds in the north Atlantic and hunt fish by diving from height into the sea at up to 60 miles per hour. Flying fish can make powerful, self-propelled leaps out of the water and into the sky, where their wing-like fins help them to glide over considerable distances.

One of the current drawbacks for small-scale flying robots is that they generally lack sufficient power to make the transition from water to the air. Dr Kovac’s team say they have potentially overcome this problem with their drone by mimicking the way flying fish make ‘impulsive’ leaps from the water.

The team say the advantage of their small, fixed-wing craft is that it can travel faster and over longer distances compared to hovering vehicles. The plunge diving approach reduces the need for highly accurate control. This means it would be more cost effective to manufacture because it needs less gadgetry, and more could be bought and deployed, to give a more in-depth analysis.