Autonomous robot finds its way through pipe networks to find leaks
Image credit: Dreamstime
A robot that can find its way through narrow pipe networks, relaying images of damage or obstructions to human operators, has been developed by University of Leeds researchers.
Much of the infrastructure for water, sewage and gas runs in pipes under the ground that require regular inspection to find the source of leaks or needed repairs.
This often requires expensive excavation work that is estimated to cost £5.5bn a year in the UK alone, as well as causing disruption to traffic and nuisance to people living nearby.
The team has developed a robot called Joey that can navigate by itself through mazes of pipes as narrow as 7.5cm across without needing a camera. Weighing just 70g, it’s small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.
“Underground water and sewer networks are some of the least hospitable environments, not only for humans, but also for robots,” said Dr Thanh Luan Nguyen, first author of a paper describing the project.
The researchers ensured that Joey functions with very simple motors, sensors and computers that occupy little space, to help the small batteries operate for long enough.
It moves on 3D-printed ‘wheel-legs’ that roll through straight sections and walk over small obstacles. It is equipped with a range of energy-efficient sensors that measure its distance from walls, junctions and corners, navigational tools, a microphone, and a camera and ‘spotlights’ to film faults in the pipe network and save the images. The prototype cost only £300 to produce.
The team showed that Joey is able to find its way, without any instructions from human operators, through an experimental network of pipes including a T-junction, a left and right corner, a dead-end, an obstacle, and three straight sections. On average, Joey managed to explore about one metre of pipe network in just over 45 seconds.
It can move up and down inclined pipes with realistic slopes and was tested on muddy or slippery tubes coated with sand or dishwashing liquid.
The sensors proved to be capable of allowing Joey to navigate without the need to turn on the camera or use power-hungry computer vision. This saves energy and extends Joey’s battery life. Whenever the battery runs low, Joey will return to its point of origin to recharge.
Currently, Joeys cannot right themselves if they inadvertently turn on their back, although the next prototype is being designed to overcome this challenge. Future generations should also be waterproof, to operate underwater in pipes entirely filled with liquid.
The Pipebots scientists aim to develop a swarm of Joeys that communicate and work together, based off a larger ‘mother’ robot named Kanga.
Kanga, currently under development and testing by some of the same group at Leeds School of Computing, will be equipped with more sophisticated sensors and repair tools such as robot arms, and carry multiple Joeys.
“Ultimately we hope to design a system that can inspect and map the condition of extensive pipe networks, monitor the pipes over time, and even execute some maintenance and repair tasks,” said Cohen.
“We envision the technology to scale up and diversify, creating an ecology of multi-species of robots that collaborate underground. In this scenario, groups of Joeys would be deployed by larger robots that have more power and capabilities but are restricted to the larger pipes. Meeting this challenge will require more research, development, and testing over 10 to 20 years. It may start to come into play around 2040 or 2050.”
Details of the work were published in Frontiers in Robotics and AI.
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