Maintaining the underground water infrastructure is one of the greatest challenges facing the industry, especially given the pressure to deliver more without passing the cost onto the customer. Pinpointing exactly what is going on where, is extremely difficult and at times, attempts to maintain the infrastructure can seem reactive and disruptive.

A new 5-year programme grant hopes to alleviate these problems by pioneering the use of robots to investigate and fix underground pipes, propelling trenchless technology into the future.

A collaborative team led by the University of Sheffield, working 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 develop intelligent ways to find damaged, leaking and blocked underground water and sewage pipes so they can be repaired without disruptive excavation.

By developing a robotic inspection technology platform, the team hopes to facilitate better management of underground pipe networks, with robots being used to both find and fix damage, thereby avoiding disruption and reducing costs. The programme will look at other innovative ways to combine new navigation and communication technology to help utility companies inspect and monitor buried pipes.

Professor Kirill V Horoshenkov, from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, who is the lead academic for the project, said: “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 the general public.”

He added: “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.”

At present, it can be extremely difficult to find out when and where underground pipes are damaged and utility companies often have to rely on digging up roads and pavements to find the exact nature and extent of the problem. This means that 1.5 million roads are excavated in the UK every year to fix damaged buried infrastructure, causing road closures and disruption to business totalling approximately £5.5 billion.

The new research programme will investigate ways in which robots can move freely and intelligently through complex underground networks to map and inspect pipes. These autonomous robots will be able to communicate and share data to ensure pipe defects are identified early and repaired, avoiding disruption for households and businesses.

At the University of Leeds, Professor Richardson will fabricate robotic devices that can enter and move in tiny spaces, which are at present impossible to reach. Traction will be an important design feature, as the robots will need to work in varying conditions without breaking the pipes or damaging themselves. He said: “We are extremely excited to be able to take on new challenges that come with applying this new robotic sensing platform to real-world conditions, which includes overcoming the constraints imposed by the physicality of the robots.

“The next stages of our research into the robotic sensing of buried infrastructure will allow us to take this concept from a laboratory setting and test the autonomous robotic technology in a real-life environment.”

Whilst Professor Cohen will develop algorithms which control the robots so they are able to function independently while also performing inspection and repair functions in challenging conditions. Her methods include extracting engineering principles from simple animals, such as insects and worms, and applying the lessons learnt from the characteristics to the robots’ programmed behaviour.

She said: “Our robots will be small enough to fit into pipes, limiting their sensors and also their computational capacity.

“Animal behaviour can teach us how to program simple robots to survive and function in such harsh environments.

Speaking of their part in the project, Professor Bruce Drinkwater commented: “At the University of Bristol, we are leading the sensors research. These sensors will be the eyes and ears of the robots. We will be listening for the acoustic signature of leaks and actively probing the pipe with ultrasonic waves. Our aim is to find defects such as corrosion and cracking before they present a problem. Fixing minor issues before they become catastrophic failures.”

Professor Chris Rogers, University of Birmingham’s Department of Civil Engineering commented: “This is an exciting development in our 20 year programme of transforming the way we install, maintain, repair and upgrade our buried infrastructure. Pipebots will enable us to detect progressive and incipient failure in pipelines by comprehensive pervasive sensing from within – something that is currently either impossible or prohibitively expensive – and intervene using the suite of trenchless technologies that have emerged over the past 30 years.

“This would represent a sea-change from what happens now, which is typically carrying out emergency repairs once leaks are detected using trenching, with the myriad adverse consequences for the travelling public, the surrounding environment and for the life of the road and adjacent buried infrastructure.

“Pipebots builds on our novel research on Assessing The Underworld, which explores how to survey the condition of road structures and buried pipes, and the ground that supports them both, from the ground surface. The benefits of this new research to citizens, and the places where they live, work and play, are huge, since the Pipebots approach will manifestly move our infrastructure and urban systems towards a more sustainable, resilient and liveable future.”

In addition to the universities, a number of industry partners will take part in the project including key water utilities in the UK who will help to develop a set of requirements for the new pervasive robotic sensing platform to work in clean water, wastewater and gas pipes. They will support the formation and operation of the new research Centre of Autonomous Sensing for Buried Infrastructure in the UK and ensure that the results of this research have strong practical outcomes.

Professor Robertson of the University of Leeds, said: “It is important to consider the long-term impact of this pipe inspection technology and both the innovative and economic outcome it may have, not only for businesses, road users and commuters, but also new young scientists and engineers in training.

“It will also aid policymakers and contribute to the development of Government research and design strategies. By applying this autonomous, bio-inspired robotic technology, we can shape a new, sustainable way of building infrastructure to educate skilled emerging scientists and build a new foundation for an emerging generation of expert engineers.

He added: “We are contributing to a wider vision of self-repairing cities, which is set to be in place by 2050.”