Researchers to develop mini robots to inspect and repair water, gas and sewage pipes

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Miniature robots could be used to repair underground pipes and avoid the need to costly roadworks as part of ground-breaking new government-funded research.

Researchers from four leading British universities are collaborating to develop tiny devices around 1cm long that use sensors, navigation and communication systems to detect, report and mend faults in the pipes and eliminate the need for human intervention.

The innovation could help avoid the complicated and costly process of maintaining buried pipework involving roadworks and traffic closures. The robots will travel along the pipes, detect any defects internally before examining them on a minute scale and guiding appropriate maintenance equipment. This process will result in pipe repairs at an earlier stage and will look to resolve numerous problems such as repairing cracks and avoiding leaks. Resolving issues this early on will reduce the cost of intervention and associated disruption.

Science Minister Chris Skidmore said: While for now we can only dream of a world without roadworks disrupting our lives, these pipe-repairing robots herald the start of technology that could make that dream a reality in the future.

By deploying robots in our pipe network to cut down traffic delays, this new technology could change the world we live in for the better. Experts in our top UK universities across the country are well-equipped to develop this innovative new technology.

We have put research and development at the heart of our modern Industrial Strategy, with the biggest boost to funding in UK history to create high skill jobs and boost productivity across the country.

The government has identified robotics and artificial intelligence as key areas of growth in the modern Industrial Strategy. The UK already develops ambitious robotics technologies, pushing the boundaries of knowledge.

If successful, this project could be rolled out in pipe networks across the UK in five to 10 years.

Professor Kirill Horoshenkov from the University of Sheffield leads a team that will receive the £7.2 million research grant from the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to carry out this research programme in collaboration with the University of Birmingham, University of Bristol and University of Leeds.

Professor Horoshenkov said: Maintaining a safe and secure water and energy supply is fundamental for society, but faces many challenges such as increased customer demand and climate change.

Our new research programme will help utility companies monitor hidden pipe infrastructure and solve problems quickly and efficiently when they arise. This will mean less disruption for the traffic and general public.

This innovation will be the first of its kind to deploy swarms of miniaturised robots in buried pipes on an unprecedented scale together with other emerging in-pipe sensor, navigation and communication solutions with long-term autonomy.

There is over 1 million km of buried pipework in the UK. Similar figures are applicable for concealed piping - such as in walls - supplying clean water, gas and removing wastewater from our homes.

Pipe networks are very expensive to maintain and run. The total value of sewer assets in Europe amounts to €2 trillion (£1.8 trillion), whilst water collection systems in the US have a replacement value of up to $2 trillion (£1.6 trillion).

Pipe systems around the world are continuing to expand rapidly. Yet little is known about their condition. There is increasing pressure on utility companies to ensure systems are continuous, safe and efficient.

At present it can be extremely difficult to find out when and where underground pipes are showing signs of damage, and therefore incipient failure, and utility companies often have to rely on digging up roads and pavements to find out the exact problem

1.5 million roads are excavated in the UK every year to fix damaged buried pipes causing road closures. The disruption to businesses amounts to approximately £5.5 billion.

Professor Lynn Gladden, EPSRC's Executive Chair, said: This Programme grant is a great example of how research from different parts of the Engineering and Physical Sciences community can combine to address a real world problem. Detecting faults in pipework systems ahead of failure could save huge amounts of money and avoid disruption to supplies and delays to traffic due to roadworks.

Notes to editors:

  • This work will be done in collaboration with a number of other industry and academic partners including key water utilities in the UK who will help to develop a new set of requirements for the new pervasive robotic sensing platform to work in clean water, wastewater and gas pipes. They will support the formation and operation of the new research Centre of Autonomous Sensing for Buried Infrastructure in the UK and ensure that the results of this research have strong practical outcomes.

Elaborating on the project, Professor Horoshenkov said:

Our research proposes a radical change in terms of buried pipe sensing in order to address the issues of pipe inspection and rehabilitation. It builds upon recent advances in sensors, nano- and micro-electronics research, communication and robotic autonomous systems and aims to develop a completely new pervasive robotics sensing technology platform which is autonomous and covers the entire pipe network.

The robots will be able to travel, cooperate and interrogate the pipes from the inside, detect the onset of any defects continuously, navigate to and zoom on sub-millimetre scale defects to examine them in detail, communicate and guide any maintenance equipment to repair the infrastructure at an early sign of deterioration - when the cost of intervention and associated disruption are minimal.

As the robots are very small they will not present a danger of being stuck, blocking the pipe if they are damaged or run out of power. As there will be many of them they introduce a high level of redundancy in the inspection system, so that routine inspection can continue after a loss of a proportion of the sensors in the swarm.

Using the propagation of sonic waves and other types of sensing the robots will be able to monitor any changes in the condition of the pipe walls, joints, valves and lateral connections; they will detect the early development and growth of sub-millimetre scale operational or structural faults and pipe corrosion.

An important benefit of this sensing philosophy is that it mimics nature, i.e. the individual sensors are small, cheap and unsophisticated, but a swarm of them is highly capable and precise.

  • This exciting development falls under the umbrella of UKCRIC - the UK Collaboration for Research on Infrastructure and Cities - which aims to transform the way that research communities combine to tackle the major challenges that the UK faces in this vital topic area. UKCRIC has received a capital investment of £138 million from the Government, matched by industry and the 14 member institutions that are receiving the new facilities. The miniature robots will be trialed in the facilities at Sheffield and Birmingham.
  • The Programme Grant is linked to related previous work, including iBUILD (EP/K012398), ICIF (EP/K012347), Assessing the Underworld (EP/K021699) and Balancing the impact of City Infrastructure Engineering on Natural Systems using Robots (EP/N010523/1). It will create the technology that has flexibility to adapt to different systems of governance globally.
  • The Industrial Strategy sets out a long term plan to boost the productivity and earning power of people throughout the UK. It sets out how we are building a Britain fit for the future - how we will help businesses create better, higher-paying jobs in every part of the UK with investment in skills, industries and infrastructure.
  • In October 2018, the University of Sheffield opened the Integrated Civil and Infrastructure Research Centre (ICAIR), which hosts the EPSRC UKCRIC National Distributed Water Infrastructure Facility, a uniquely powerful experimental facility for investigating underground distributed water infrastructure. This Centre is fundamental to the proposed research programme to test and to demonstrate the new robotics technology platform to end-users. The programme of research will also make use of the EPSRC UKCRIC National Buried Infrastructure Facility (NBIF) at University of Birmingham.
  • Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government. EPSRC is the main funding body for engineering and physical sciences research in the UK. By investing in research and postgraduate training, we are building the knowledge and skills base needed to address the scientific and technological challenges facing the nation. Our portfolio covers a vast range of fields from healthcare technologies to structural engineering, manufacturing to mathematics, advanced materials to chemistry. The research we fund has impact across all sectors. It provides a platform for future UK prosperity by contributing to a healthy, connected, resilient, productive nation.

Reference: PN 01-19

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