Soon, robots could be swimming in underground water pipes, locating damage and repairing leaks owing to a massive new research project led by the University of Sheffield.
A collaborative team led by the University of Sheffield, partnering with the Universities of Bristol, Birmingham and Leeds, has received £7 million from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) plus a £2 million contribution from the four universities to create intelligent ways to locate damaged underground water and sewage pipes so they can be fixed without disruptive excavation.
The program will explore other groundbreaking ways to integrate new navigation and communication technology to help utility companies examine and screen buried pipes.
At the moment, it can be very hard to discover when and where underground pipes are damaged and utility companies frequently have to depend on digging up pavements and roads to locate the exact problem.
This means that 1.5 million roads are excavated in the UK annually to repair damaged buried pipes, resulting in road closures and interruption to business totaling approximately £5.5 billion.
The new research program will explore ways in which robots can move freely and smartly through intricate underground networks to map and examine pipes. These autonomous robots will be designed to communicate and share data to ensure pipe flaws are identified early and repaired, avoiding interruption of businesses and households.
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 traffic and general public. This innovation will be the first of its kind to deploy swarms of miniaturised robots in buried pipes together with other emerging in-pipe sensor, navigation and communication solutions with long-term autonomy.
Kirill V Horoshenkov, Professor and Project’s Lead Academic, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Sheffield.
This research will be done in partnership with several industry partners including UK’s main water utilities who will help to create a set of requirements for the new pervasive robotic sensing system to operate in wastewater, clean water, and gas pipes. They will support the development and operation of the new research Centre of Autonomous Sensing for Buried Infrastructure in the UK and ensure that the results of this study have promising practical outcomes.
In October 2018, the University of Sheffield opened the Integrated Civil and Infrastructure Research Centre (ICAIR), which hosts the UKCRIC National Distributed Water Infrastructure Facility, an exclusively robust experimental facility for examining underground distributed water infrastructure. This center is central to the proposed research program to test and to showcase the new robotics technology platform to end-users.
The program will also make use of the UKCRIC National Buried Infrastructure Facility (NBIF) at the University of Birmingham.