Robot shuttlecocks that travel through pipes to find leaks are the future

19 Jul 2017

Image: BorneoJC James/Shutterstock

Have a leaky pipe but don’t know where it’s coming from? You might want to send a shuttlecock robot.

Despite what we might think, the water that comes to our homes through pipes – for those in the world lucky enough to have that – is just part of what originates at the other end.

In Ireland alone, at least 800m litres of water – or almost half of our water supply – are lost each day due to leaky pipes across the country’s infrastructure. This not only leads to waste, but can also damage other critical infrastructure as well.

Future Human

This problem exists across the world and now, in order to identify the leaks, a team from MIT is hoping to unleash a new shuttlecock-shaped robot into our pipes, called PipeGuard.

Fast and inexpensive

While typical leak-detection systems are expensive and slow to operate, the MIT team believes its robot could provide a fast, cheaper solution to find even the tiniest of leaks with pinpoint precision.

The relatively simple process sees PipeGuard inserted into a pipe through a fire hydrant and it then passively travels with the flow, with its position tracked along the way.

When its soft, rubber skirt detects even the smallest of irregularities along the diameter of the pipe, it makes a note of it.

Once PipeGuard has reached the end of its route, it is collected by a net, with its data uploaded and ready for analysis.

To expand its capabilities further, the team also produced an active robot that can control its own motion along the pipe.

The robot has already undergone testing, and has drawn the attention of Saudi Arabia, where water conservation is a major priority – estimates are that 33pc of its water supply, obtained through desalination, is lost through leaks.

Using a rusty pipe measuring more than 1.5km, with a series of bends and connections, PipeGuard was able to successfully distinguish between real leaks and planted false leaks during testing.

It was even able to find a leak that was pumping out nearly four litres a minute, a leak 10 times smaller than what can be discovered by typical analytical systems.

Not a pipe dream

Speaking of its potential, Mark Gallagher, director of engineering and distribution at the Cambridge Water Department in Massachusetts, said: “If we had the capability to find leaks when they first appear or before they get to the point of critical failure, that could equate to preventing the loss of millions of gallons of water annually.

“It could minimise the damage to infrastructure and the loss of water services to homes and businesses, and it could significantly reduce the associated cost.”

The eventual goal for the MIT team is to enable PipeGuard to not only discover these leaks, but also have the potential to repair them instantly.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic