These robots travel through underground pipes to help fix blockages

Some of them use sound-waves to locate an obstruction or a leak.
Sade Agard
Small robots called 'Pipebots' are being developed to help fix our pipes.
Small robots called 'Pipebots' are being developed to help fix our pipes.

Pipebots 

  • Small robots called 'Pipebots' could work in underground pipe networks- in both clean water and sewers.
  • Pipebots will be able to operate autonomously and could reduce some of the costly hassle associated with excavating a series of trenches.
  • The robots are being developed so they will be able to communicate with each other - making them collaborative.

Did you know that the U.S. alone has an infrastructure system of over 2 million miles of underground pipes? And this figure only accounts for those pipes that provide dependable, clean water. You can imagine the scale of pipework when taking into consideration sewerage and gas pipes, too.

Additionally, a water main breaks every two minutes, losing the U.S. an estimated six billion gallons of treated water daily, according to a report card as recent as 2021. That's enough to fill almost 12 million average-sized bathtubs.

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Conventional methods for maintaining and repairing these pipes are not only costly- they can be noisy, dirty (and at times dangerous, too), causing a lot of inconveniences. But what if, in the future, we could use tiny robots to change all of this?

A team of researchers in the U.K. is developing just that. Small robots called 'Pipebots' could work in underground pipe networks- in both clean water and sewers.

At New Scientist Live, Interesting Engineering (IE) spoke with Andy Blight, a Robotics Software Technician at the University of Leeds, U.K.

The idea is to drop a little garage full of 'Pipebots' in a maintenance hole, and put the lid back on

These robots travel through underground pipes to help fix blockages
'Burger bots:' Conceptual (earlier) models of the pipe bots with 'sesame bun' tops

"The idea is to be able to explore an area of interest by a van turning up one morning at a manhole cover, dropping in a little garage full of robots, and then putting the lid back on. After about three weeks or a week later, the van would return to gather all the data collected," Andy Blight explained to IE.

Given their 'sesame seed bun' look, the team nicknamed the conceptual robots 'burger bots.' "These particular robots [conceptual models] are too small. But they are cute, and people like them," said Blight.

Blight and the team clarified that the conceptual bots were part of an animation produced early on in the project-they never looked like that. The current prototypes, known as the 'joeys,' are what they are working on.

The pipe bots' primary responsibilities include mapping the locations of pipes (they are not always where they appear on diagrams) and locating possible pipe failures.

There are two main types of blockage. One is temporary, like a 'fatberg' which is a term used to describe when an item like a nappy has been flushed, becomes stuck, and then fat builds up around it, blocking a pipe.

The second type refers to more severe blockages, resulting in pipes collapsing. For example, where a tree root grows through it.

Like keyhole surgery, the approach offers an alternative to 'opening everything up'

These robots travel through underground pipes to help fix blockages
Pipebots could accurately determine the nature and location blockages

Blight explained, "[With this information] somebody could then say 'this blockage is some sort of fatberg, two meters from this manhole.' A team would then go out there with a high-pressure hose, closer to the problem.”

However, if it's a broken pipe that needs repairing, Blight revealed using pipe bots can reduce some of the costly hassle associated with excavating a series of trenches. Instead, one pipe bot could be sent from either end of a damaged area to determine its size. Then a crew responsible for fixing the pipe would be dispatched.

"So it's more like keyhole surgery- rather than opening everything up. That's one of the key benefits, of course. Accurate localization. Digging up less road is less inconvenient for everybody," said Blight. Still, how exactly do Pipe bots work?

The robots will operate autonomously- current acoustic prototypes can map accurately to 2cm

For navigation of the pipes, the robots will operate autonomously- thanks to a variety of onboard sensors. This will include utilizing computer vision as well as an in-built accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetic field sensor.

"We have an acoustic model that we use for acoustic testing. We put that [acoustic Pipebot] in a pipe to find sound waves to identify where the blockage might be," said Blight. The team discovered that acoustics could also map pipes accurately to 2cm.

After the pipes have been mapped, pipe bots acquire the data, for example, on an S.D.(secure digital) card. This information may be wirelessly transmitted from the client to the server, where artificial intelligence (A.I.) processing could identify issues with the pipe.

Pipebots have a dedicated chip for communication and another chip for everything else

Blight highlighted that the pipe bots feature a red light which, when off, indicates a need for a charge by a standard USB plug. Typically a charge of 10 minutes will provide half an hour of work when using a dedicated two-amp one. Still, Blight highlighted that the research team is aiming for three hours.

There is a dedicated chip for communication and another chip for everything else. The Pipebot's top chip does all of the video processing, and the plan is that on the way back, this will shut down along with other features to save power. 

From a mapping point, pipes are straightforward to map- it took us a while to realize that, but we got there eventually," added Blight. On its return journey, the pipe bot doesn't need to see where it's going because it has taken photos.

Considering the robots would only be able to go about three to four meters before losing WIFI connection, this ability to go out "on their own" would play a vital role in the project's success, Blight explained.

Reducing the pipe bots' size to 2cm will be a difficult task

These robots travel through underground pipes to help fix blockages
Pipebots will need to demonstrate robustness in a various terrain

One challenge would be designing the pipe bots to achieve robustness through various terrains.

Current prototypes of the pipe bots are roughly 10 centimeters long, five centimeters wide, and seven centimeters high. "The wheels we currently have are too small. We would need something that's about 50 millimeters so the robots can climb. This will be the next version," revealed Blight.

The team also wants to reduce the pipe bots' size to around two centimeters across. Still, Blight admits that will be a complicated task.

"How do you make something [this small] that will last long enough to do something useful while having the right amount of processing power on board?" prompted Blight.

The pipe bots' three-spoked legs enable them to climb over higher obstacles

These robots travel through underground pipes to help fix blockages
Small robots called 'Pipebots' are being developed to help fix our pipes.

In nature- a giant cockroach could be used as an analogy. Now, think about what it can do, and how long it lasts between feedings. In general, most things this small do not last very long- one factor being that they need feeding regularly. “So, for us, how would we feed a robot regularly?,” explained Blight.

Furthermore, how would you get the legs to work? Turns out the team has already thought about this by opting for three-spoked legs instead of wheels for the pipe bots, enabling them to climb over higher obstacles than wheels. "But we need to make [the legs] much bigger because we need to get over 15-millimeter objects and obstacles,"highlighted Blight.

Next steps include pipe bots' ability to determine pipe conditions ahead of commercialization

The project has been going on for almost three and a half years, having been given a five-year grant. "So we've got about a year and a half to go. The next phase includes demonstrating the pipe bots' robustness inside the pipe. We hope to send them down in about 20 years," said Blight.

After that is demonstrated to the industry, the team hopes to get another batch of funding to start doing more research, particularly into pipe conditions. This includes pipe bots' ability to distinguish whether there's a hollow area behind the pipe where waters leaked and the tools eroded.

"Once this is done, we'd probably try to produce the pipe bots in small runs as a pilot phase," added Blight.

In the future, the robots will be able to communicate with each other - making them collaborative

These robots travel through underground pipes to help fix blockages
The idea is that Pipebots will communicate with each other

The team also spoke about making a switch so the robots can communicate with each other - making them collaborative. Currently, they are all a little random. Still, ultimately, the team intends to drop three to four pipe bots into a pipe and have each one go off to a different side of it.

Blight described this as, "they will all come back together share the information, they might say 'oh there's a bit more to do', take a little longer and then come back to recharge."