Tired of potholes and traffic delays due to construction? Leeds University in England is working on a network of small robots and drones to create a “self-repairing city.”
The university has received £4.2 million ($6.5 million) to develop autonomous machines to fix and maintain the city of Leeds’ infrastructure. The goal is to reduce traffic problems with early prevention, detection, and repair of infrastructure problems.
“Our robots will undertake precision repairs and avoid the need for large construction vehicles in the heart of our cities,” said Rob Richardson, director of the National Facility for Innovative Robotic Systems at the university.
The research project is divided into three portions. “Perch and Repair” involves systems that can sit atop public structures such as street lamps and repair them. “Perceive and Patch” drones would survey roads and fix potholes, and the “Fire and Forget” robots would inspect and meter electricity, gas, and water lines.
“We want to make Leeds the first city in the world to have zero disruption from street works,” said Phil Purnell, a civil engineering professor at Leeds University’s School of Engineering. “We can support infrastructure which can be entirely maintained by robots and make the disruption caused by the constant digging up the road in our cities a thing of the past.”
“The project — ‘Balancing the impact of City Infrastructure Engineering on Natural Systems Using Robots’ — will also track the social, environmental, political, and economic impact of these new technologies in the city,” Richardson said.
The university and city of Leeds are also working with the U.K. Collaboration for Research in Infrastructure and Cities. The robots are expected to be ready for testing next year.
The robotics project is part of the Engineering Grand Challenges, for which Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council is providing a total of £21 million ($32.15 million) to multiple universities.
CISBOT crawls through Scottish gas lines
ULC Robotics Inc., which won a Game Changer Award at RoboBusiness 2015, has deployed its Cast Iron Joint Sealing Robot (CISBOT) in Edinburgh, Scotland. CISBOT will crawl through gas mains to repair joints without disrupting surface traffic.
“In George Street, we’ll be carrying out maintenance on around 1,965 feet of gas pipe,” said Matt Ferguson, team manager at gas distributor SGN. “The work will take approximately six weeks. However, the use of this technology will make a difference in minimizing disruption, as we will only need to make two excavations in the road. In fact, 96 percent of the work will be unseen, as it will take place under the ground.”
Although newer gas pipelines are made of plastic, 80,000 km (50,000 miles) of metal pipes remain in the U.K. and are prone to leakage.
“Gas utilities in the United States and in the U.K. are dedicated to making pipeline safety and reliability a paramount priority,” said Gregory Penza, president of Bay Shore, N.Y.-based ULC Robotics. “CISBOT technology helps gas utilities such as SGN, maintain the safety and reliability of large-diameter, cast-iron gas mains by renewing the joints, where gas is most likely to escape.”
Tensegrity could lead to cleaner air
Researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) are testing light robots that can move efficiently using “tensegrity.” This technology allows them to move efficiently and with a high degree of control through tight spaces such as air ducts.
Tensegrity is a combination of tension and compression that was first developed at NASA’s Ames Research Center for space exploration. NASA’s Intelligent Robotics Group is providing some of the funding to the UCSD project.
Jeffery Friesen, a Ph.D. student at the UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering, has applied the technology in the Duct Climbing Tetrahedral Tensegrity, or DucTT, robot. It uses tensegrity to move using relatively few actuators, combined with wires and aluminum tubes.
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The tubes house the motors and batteries. Although 3D-printed parts proved to be too fragile, the robot is light and flexible. DucTT can run for up to six hours on a single charge, but the current prototypes don’t yet include air-quality sensors or cleaning devices.
Indoor air contamination costs U.S. businesses $60 billion annually, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and the World Health Organization estimates that Americans spend 90 percent of their time indoors.