UK invests in micro-robots which could make roadworks a thing of the past

Monday, December 31st, 2018
Source: The Telegraph
Illustration of one of the robots, designed by the University of Sheffield, that will travel through pipes Credit: University of Sheffield

Roadworks may soon be a thing of the past as small robots will be sent down pipes to make repairs instead of digging up roads.

Four universities in the UK are working together to develop a collection of “insect-like” robots that will fix and inspect underground pipes.

The robots, around one centimetre in size, will be able to fly, swim and crawl through pipes used for water, gas and sewage. They will also allow utility companies to make a “Google Maps-style” plan of their pipe networks as the devices travel underground.

The Government has now invested £26.6m in the project, as it hopes the technology will put an end to the disruption caused by 1.5 million road excavations that take place every year. These roadworks cost the country more than £5bn a year in traffic closures and lost business, according to the Government.

The scientists behind the project believe the robots will also be able to tap the pipes to understand their condition, using the sound and vibrations to analysis the quality of the pipe walls. This will mean workmen will not have to examine the exterior of the pipes.

“It is like keyhole surgery for the ground, so instead of cutting up the whole road, send a small robot down a pipe and conduct repairs and inspections,” Professor Kirill Horoshenkov, from the University of Sheffield, told The Daily Telegraph.

The academic, who specialises in acoustics, explains that, as they will be going through dark pipes, fitting them with cameras will not be an option. So instead the robots will use sound to navigate and investigate the pipes, using a system called sonar.

Sonar works by detecting objects through water by emitting sound pulses and then measuring how long it takes for the pulse to come back to the robot. The delay tells the robot how far away it is from the object that the soundwave deflected from.

Professor Horoshenkov claims the robots could also have applications in aerospace, nuclear reactors and medicine. He said his colleagues were speaking to people in these sectors about using the robots in these different environments.

The technology, which could also be used to remove blockages in pipes, is expected to be in operation in five years time.

The pipe robots will come in two different types, Professor Horoshenkov explains.

The first will be an “inspection bot” that is agile enough to easily examine pipes quickly and autonomously, and the second a slightly larger robot, dubbed a “worker bot”, that will have more energy and materials to carry out maintenance work. This robot is more likely to be remote-controlled from humans on the service, who will use cement mix and adhesives to repair pipes.

Additionally it could use a high powered jet to remove sediment that might be building up in the pipes. These exact tools are still being developed by the researchers. Other instruments or designs could be created over the next five years of development.

The robots will be developed by researchers at universities in Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds and Sheffield.

The project is one of fifteen schemes, being backed by the Government, to use robotics and artificial intelligence to overcome problems brought about by difficult or hazardous work conditions.

These additional schemes will receive £93m in funding to create robots to take people out of dangerous environments and go into areas beyond human limits, for industries such as offshore energy, nuclear energy, space and deep mining.

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.

“From deploying robots in our pipe network so cutting down traffic delays, to using robots in workplaces to keep people safer, 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.”