Underground robotic insects could soon be unleashed in the UK

2 Jan 2019

Image: © Mulderphoto/Stock.adobe.com

UK researchers are developing insect-like robots to make repairs in tunnels and pipes underground, potentially saving millions in costs.

Keeping much of our infrastructure underground, be it for sanitation or supplying gas, is a logical choice given the congestion it would cause on a city’s streets. The only problem is that the moment something goes wrong in one of those pipes, it has to be dug up and inspected before repairs can be made.

However, The Telegraph in the UK is reporting that the University of Sheffield, working with the Universities of Bristol, Birmingham and Leeds, is developing robots small enough to travel down these pipes to make repairs and clear blockages without needing to disrupt what’s happening on the surface.

Measuring just 1cm in size, the robots can fly, swim or crawl their way through pipes. Using sound and vibrations, the robots will be able to get a reading of the pipe’s condition and quality, while also providing companies with Google Maps-style plans of where exactly the pipes are.

Given the size of the robots and the fact they will be navigating through pitch-black pipes, the researchers will use acoustic navigation, including sonar, to help them find their way around.

Definitely no pipe dream

In total, two different robots are in development, the first being the ‘inspection bot’ to autonomously inspect the pipes, while the ‘worker bot’ will be the human-controlled workers sent in to make any repairs or clear blockages.

“It is like keyhole surgery for the ground, so instead of cutting up the whole road, send a small robot down a pipe and conduct repairs and inspections,” said Prof Kirill Horoshenkov of the University of Sheffield.

So far, the UK government has invested £26.6m in the project, with the aim of cutting down on the estimated £5bn spent each year on 1.5m road excavations and the knock-on effects felt by nearby businesses.

The country’s science minister, Chris Skidmore, said: “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.”

Speaking of other potential uses, Horoshenkov said the robots could also be used to inspect hazardous locations, such as nuclear reactors, and in the aerospace industry.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic