Pipebots to the rescue (of your water pipes)

Pipebots at work in a buried water pipe
No, it’s not something from the minds of Pixar: the image above is of Pipebots, micro robots designed to inspect buried pipes, water pipes in particular.

Just 20mm wide, Pipebots are the brainchild of a team from the universities of Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds and Sheffield, with the support of utility companies, industry bodies and ultimately backed by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Equipped with on-board sensors and cameras, the Pipebots can locate, diagnose and scan potential faults and relay the data wirelessly to a human engineer on the surface. Decisions are then made to deploy a repair team – only when and exactly where it’s needed.

The Pipebots can walk and swim.

The project’s rationale is to address the UK’s ageing buried pipe infrastructure safely and cost-effectively. According to the Pipebot team, the replacement value of UK buried water and wastewater pipes, a network approximately 1m km long, is between £300bn and £600bn. The gas supply network generates a similar cost.

“While pipe inspection technologies used by these industries have progressed, the lack of comprehensive knowledge about the condition of buried pipes results in sporadic, unforeseen failures,” the team said.

“As a result, there are 1.5m road excavations per year in the UK, causing full or partial road closures and a cost to the UK of at least £5.5bn per year. Without the transformative step-change in pervasive sensing proposed here [the Pipebots], this situation will worsen exponentially as our infrastructure ages.”

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