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Swarms of tiny robots to monitor infrastructure pipes

Technology News |
By Nick Flaherty

Researchers from four UK universities led by Sheffield University are to develop 1 cm-long robotic devices that use sensors and navigation systems to find and mend cracks in pipes. The project will have to address the power challenges of small systems to provide significant mission times and ultra low power communications links as well as algorithms for controlling the swarm of devices effectively in a pipeline.

A further 14 projects backed by the government will see robots sent to hazardous work places such as offshore wind-farms and nuclear decommissioning facilities with a total of £26.6m. Researchers will demonstrate technologies such as the use of artificial intelligence (AI) software on satellites in orbit to detect when repairs are needed, and drones for oil pipeline monitoring.

“While for now we can only dream of a world without roadworks disrupting our lives, these pipe-repairing robots herald the start of technology that could make that dream a reality in the future,” said Science Minister Chris Skidmore. There are over 1.5m road closures each year in the uK for repairs, costing over £5bn. “From deploying robots in our pipe network so cutting down traffic delays, to using robots in workplaces to keep people safer, this new technology could change the world we live in for the better.”

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

The funding for the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) robotics challenge will be added to the current £93 million, 4-year programme to develop robots to take people out of dangerous work environments and go into areas beyond human limits. THis includes the Inspect, Maintain and Repair in Extreme Environments Collaborative R&D autonomous aquatic inspection and intervention led by ROVCO in Bristol as well as the Chimera project for robotic inspection of pressure vessels led by Forth Engineering in Scotland. A low earth orbit (LEO) satellite-based AI demonstrator will be led by Myrtle Software.

www.sheffield.ac.uk

 


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