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Are these 'tiny robots' the future of infrastructure maintenance?

UK backs 1cm-long robots to cut roadwork disruption cost, inspect oil pipelines, and make workplaces safer

The UK is developing 'tiny robots' to help avoid roadworks to repair pipes, and inspect oil pipelines [representational image].
© Pixabay / 3888952
The UK is developing 'tiny robots' to help avoid roadworks to repair pipes, and inspect oil pipelines [representational image].

In a future-focused push worth $34m, the UK is conducting research into ‘tiny robots’ that could repair its underground pipe network without disrupting existing infrastructure through related road excavations, as well as help to avoid hazardous workplace environments.

The new micro robots will help the UK avoid the 1.5 million-odd road excavations conducted each year to repair pipes. Four British universities are collaborating on the development of the 1cm-long robotic devices that will use sensors and navigation systems to not only detect pipe failures, but also correct them.

This $9m investment by the UK Government is expected to offset the disruption cost of $6.34bn that is a result of traffic closures and business stoppages that roadworks conducted to repair pipes lead to.

Another $25m investment by the UK Government will back 14 projects that will include robots being sent to “hazardous” workplaces, such as offshore wind farms and nuclear decommissioning facilities. This spend comes through the UK’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.

Researchers will also test new tech such as artificial intelligence to detect when in-orbit satellites need repairs, as well as study the benefits of drones for oil pipeline monitoring. Robots – both air-borne and underwater – will inspect and maintain oil and gas pressure vessels as well.

Commenting on the programme, the UK’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.

“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.”

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Construction Week - Issue 751
Oct 13, 2019