Devices could be deployed in underground pipe networks, reducing need for roadworksThe hope is for the micro-robots to inspect difficult-to-reach locations such as underground oil and gas pipes. Photograph: David Woodfall/Alamy
The UK government is investing millions in the development of micro-robots designed to work in underground pipe networks and dangerous sites such as decommissioned nuclear facilities.
The ambition is for the robots, developed in British universities, to mark the end of disruptive and expensive roadworks by carrying out repairs without the need to dig up the roads.
Airborne and underwater versions could also inspect and maintain difficult-to-reach locations such as offshore windfarms or oil and gas pressure vessels.
Chris Skidmore, the science minister, announced an investment totalling £26.6m in 15 projects, including the development of robots for underground pipe operations.
Led by Prof Kirill Horoshenkov at the University of Sheffield and backed by a £7.2m government grant, the collaborative research programme will also involve scientists from Birmingham, Bristol and Leeds universities.
It is hoped that the 1cm-long devices will use sensors and navigation systems to find and mend cracks in pipes, avoiding disruption from roadworks estimated to cost the economy £5bn a year.
The remaining £19.4m will fund research into the use of robotics in hazardous environments, including drones for oil pipeline monitoring or artificial intelligence able to establish the need for repairs on satellites in orbit.
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.”
The new funding comes from the government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and will be delivered by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).
Sir Mark Walport, UKRI’s chief executive, said: “The projects announced today demonstrate how robots and artificial intelligence will revolutionise the way we carry out complex and dangerous tasks, from maintaining offshore wind farms to decommissioning nuclear power facilities.
“They also illustrate the leading role that the UK’s innovators are playing in developing these new technologies which will improve safety and boost productivity and efficiency.”