The UK currently spends about £5.5 billion a year on 1.5 million road excavations that are needed to maintain and repair their complex network of water and sewer pipes. Researchers are working on ways to reduce the time and money needed for this maintenance and one solution is to use robots. Pipebots is a large UK government-funded project working on robots that are intended to help maintain the pipe system. 

The Pipebots are being developed to inspect for leakages and blockages, map the location of the issues, and monitor the conditions for signs of trouble. These robots will come in different sizes ranging from 50cm to as small as 2.5cm, depending on the pipes they are in. They will work autonomously, using technology such as computer vision and underground sensors.

An summary and demonstration video of how the PipeBots will function.

Since typical communication technology used today such as wifi and mobile phone networks are not good at passing through earth and soil, researchers are looking for alternative methods. For empty pipes, radio waves can be utilized by placing a base station within the tunnel system and having the signals run along them. 

However when it comes to water pipes, the water reflects and blocks the radio waves more than soil. For those situations, researchers are planning on using a combination of light and sound communication techniques. Light-based methods are ideal for close-range communication when the robots have a straight line of sight to each other. Since sound-based methods are slow to transmit information, they will be primarily used for long-distance communication. 

The researchers are hoping to have a full system demonstration on a realistic network of pipes by 2024.

This news bite was adapted from an article originally written for WE Forum.

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