Roadworks can be frustrating and time consuming for commuters, holiday-makers and road freight alike. Engineers in the UK are researching microrobotic tech that could carry out underground maintenance without disrupting traffic.
Excavations to maintain underground infrastructure can cause lengthy delays and a resulting hit to productivity.
In a bid to cut costs and save time, the UK government has invested £7 million (AU$12.5 million) into research and development of tiny robots that can swim through underground pipes to detect and repair cracks and blockages.
UK Science Minister Chris Skidmore said in a media release these robots could pave the way to fulfilling the dream of a roadwork-free world.
“These pipe-repairing robots herald the start of technology that could make that dream a reality in future,” he added.
Professor Kirill Horoshenkov from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Mechanical Engineering will lead the project, which will also include researchers from Bristol, Birmingham and Leeds Universities. Horoshenkov said the new research program will help utility companies monitor hidden pipe infrastructure and solve problems quickly and efficiently.
“This will mean less disruption for traffic and general public,” he said.
“Keyhole surgery” for the road
The British research program will focus on intelligent ways to find and fix problems in underground water and sewerage pipes without having to dig up roads.
While other universities are commercialising swarming microrobotic tech for in-situ repairs in confined spaces such as aircraft engines, Horoshenkov said their 1 cm robots will lead the pack in this particular application.
“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,” he explained.
Horoshenkov told The Telegraph that the researchers would first develop an ‘inspection bot’ to search for issues in pipes, then a more powerful ‘worker bot’ to carry out repairs and maintenance. He also said the robots should be able to tap the pipes and use the vibrations to assess their condition, eliminating the need for manual external inspections.
“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,” Horoshenkov explained.
This investment is part of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, which is a £93 million (AU$166 million), four-year program. Projects include an AI solution for inspecting undersea cable sites for offshore wind farms and an industrial-scale, self-building modular robot for hazardous worksites such as nuclear facilities.