Water pipe robots could stop leaks of billions of liters

Around three billion liters of water are lost every day due to leaks through hundreds of thousands of kilometers of water mains in England and Wales, says water sector economic regulator Ofwat.

Scientists have now developed miniature robots to patrol the pipeline network, check for faults and prevent leaks.

They say maintaining the network will be “impossible” without robotics.

Water sector body Water UK told BBC News that companies were already “investing billions” in losses.

But a recent Ofwat report highlighted the lack of investment by water companies. He named several that he said were “disappointing customers and the environment” by not spending enough on improvements. Water UK responded by saying losses were at their “lowest level since privatisation”.

Leaks are a widespread and complicated problem – across the UK, hundreds of thousands of miles of pipes, of varying ages and in varying conditions, supply water to millions of properties.

Colin Day of Essex and Suffolk Water said: “In [this region] alone, we deal with over 8,500km (5,282 miles) of pipes and only about half of the leaks in those pipes are visible, meaning it is tricky to pinpoint where [the rest] I am.”

A sprinkler on a lawn in summer

Hose bans remain in effect in some regions

Wasting water was a particularly sensitive issue this year. According to Water UK, three companies – South East Water, South West Water and Yorkshire Water – still have localized bans on irrigation after the summer drought. And, amid the cost-of-living crisis, Ofwat estimates that 20% of customers in England and Wales are struggling to pay their water bill.

In the last year, however, according to Ofwat, companies have reduced losses by an average of about 6%.

Industry has pledged to meet the government’s target of halving the amount of water lost by 2050. Water UK has agreed that progress needed to ‘speed up’. “We are adopting the latest technology, including special indoor cameras; satellite imagery; thermal drone technology, high-tech probes and artificial intelligence,” he told BBC News.

Flowing beneath our feet

  • There are approximately 217,000 miles of water mains in England and Wales and over 300,000 miles across the UK.

  • The net is made from a blend of materials, including plastic, cast iron and steel.

  • An average UK household uses nearly 350 liters of water every day, according to the Energy Saving Trust.

We visited the site of a leak repair with Essex and Suffolk Water, owned by Northumbria Water. At a suburban site, a crew was digging carefully, navigating the overlying sewer pipe, gas and electricity supply cables to locate an underground leak.

“This was not visible – we detected this by monitoring the flow in our network,” said Colin Day of Essex and Suffolk Water.

“We’ve covered the biggest leaks — the burst pipes that people see. It’s these smaller hidden leaks that we need to find.”

Essex and Suffolk Water are testing “digless” repairs, including sealants that can be safely injected into pipes to repair cracks before they become a major leak. The technological revolution in loss prevention, according to some scientists, will be miniature robots.

Pipe patrol robots

Experimental and transparent water pipes in the Sheffield Integrated Civil and Infrastructure Research Centre

Transparent water pipes in Sheffield infrastructure research centre

Some companies already use wired robots to investigate inaccessible pipes. But most of the network is currently inaccessible without digging. This is where much smaller, artificially intelligent machines come into play.

A new generation of underground robotic patrol boats is being tested at the University of Sheffield’s Integrated Civil and Infrastructure Research Center (ICAIR).

Pipebots are miniature mobile robots with eye cameras and all-terrain legs. They were developed in collaboration with the water industry to patrol pipes and find cracks and weak spots before they turn into leaks.

“At the moment, companies only respond reactively to failures, not proactively,” explains Prof. Kirill Horoshenkov. “We need to have robots present so they can continuously collect data before the failures start.”

Holding the toy car-sized robot in his hand, Professor Horoshenkov explained: ‘They move along the tube, take pictures and have a microphone to listen to the tube. They are designed to make decisions about the likelihood of the tube developing a fault or less”.

A miniature pipebot being tested in a lab in Sheffield

Researchers test the robots on different surfaces to mimic the inside of a pipe

Professor Netta Cohen, an artificial intelligence specialist at the University of Leeds, says the biggest challenge for pipebots is communication.

“There is no GPS in the subway. So they will communicate with each other over short distances (using sound or wifi).”

She and her colleagues are developing a system in which a larger “mother” robot carries and deploys a group of miniature robots.

“They will deposit these little boys to go into the smaller tubes and collect them when they are done,” explained Prof. Cohen. “We will need a whole company of these robots to work in all these kilometers of pipes.

“When you think about the state of our infrastructure,” he added, “it’s so urgent that we do something about it. It has implications not only for the industry, but also for our impact on the environment.”

The water pipes under our feet, said Prof. Cohen, are some of the most inhospitable environments on Earth. “We can’t do it without robotics.”

At ICAIR, the team hopes the first pipebots will be patrolling the water network within five years. Until then, whenever there’s a leak, water companies will have to dig — through the maze of gas, electricity, wifi, and sewer pipes — to fix it.

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