By Madhurjya Chowdhu

The University of Sheffield’s Integrated Civil and Infrastructure Research Centre (ICAIR) is testing a new generation of subterranean robotic pipe patrollers. Pipebots are tiny, mobile robots with all-terrain legs and cameras for eyes. They are being created in coordination with the water sector to inspect pipes and detect flaws and cracks before they become leaks.

According to Ofwat, the economic regulator for the water industry, about three billion liters of water are lost through leaks every day in England and Wales hundreds of thousands of kilometers of water pipe. Miniature robots have now been created by engineers to patrol the pipe network, look for problems, and stop leaks. Without robotics, they claim that maintaining the network will be “impossible.” According to the water industry’s trade group Water UK, businesses are already “spending billions” in reducing leakage. However, a recent Ofwat assessment emphasized that water providers had not made enough investments. By not investing enough in upgrades, it cited a number of them as “letting down customers and the environment.” In response, Water UK stated that leakage had reached “its lowest level since privatization.” Leaks are a common and challenging issue: In the UK, millions of properties are supplied with water by hundreds of thousands of kilometers of pipe that are in various states of repair and age.

“We look after more than 8,500km (5,282 miles) of pipe in [this region] alone, but only approximately half the leaks in those pipes are visible, so it’s difficult to determine where [the rest] are,” said Colin Day of Essex and Suffolk Water. This year, the subject of wasted water has received a lot of attention. Following the summer drought, localized hosepipe prohibitions are still in effect for three firms, South East Water, South West Water, and Yorkshire Water, according to Water UK. Furthermore, according to Ofwat, 20% of consumers in England and Wales are having trouble paying their water bills in the current economic downturn. However, according to Ofwat, businesses have decreased leakage by an average of 6% over the past year. The sector has committed to the government’s goal of reducing water loss by half by 2050. Water UK acknowledged the need for improvement to “accelerate”. The newest technology, such as specialized in-pipe cameras, satellite imaging, thermal drone technology, high-tech probes, and artificial intelligence, are being used by our company.

Tethered robots are already used by some businesses to look inside inaccessible conduits. However, the majority of the network cannot yet be accessed without digging. Smaller, artificially intelligent machines can help in this situation. According to Prof. Kirill Horoshenkov, “Companies only react to defects at the present, not proactively.” Robots must be present in order for them to continuously gather data prior to the commencement of errors. Prof. Horoshenkov stated while holding the miniature robot in his hand: “With a microphone to hear the pipe, they move along it while taking images. They are made to determine whether a problem in the pipe is likely to occur or not.”

Prof. Netta Cohen, an expert in artificial intelligence at the University of Leeds, claims that communication is pipebots’ largest hurdle. “GPS is unavailable underground. So they will converse with one another nearby (through sound or internet).” She is working on a system with her coworkers in which a larger “mother” robot carries and launches a fleet of smaller robots.

According to Prof. Cohen, “They will deposit these little fellas to go into the smaller pipes and collect them when they’re done.” “To work in all of these kilometers of pipe, we will need an entire community of these robots. “If you consider the condition of our infrastructure,” she continued, “it is imperative that action be taken. It affects not just business but also how we affect the environment. According to Prof. Cohen, the water pipelines under our feet are some of the planet’s least hospitable places. Without robotics, we cannot complete this. The ICAIR team anticipates that within five years, the first pipebots will patrol the water network. Until then, every time there is a leak, the water companies will have to dig to fix it, working around the confusing network of gas lines, cables, and sewer pipes.