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Water pipe robots cut down wastage

By Barry He | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-02-01 09:43

A large diameter pipe that will export fresh water from converted saltwater to the county's water system is shown as construction continues on the Western Hemisphere's largest seawater desalination plant in Carlsbad, California, April 14, 2015. [Photo/Agencies]

It is estimated that 45 million cubic meters of water is lost every day globally through water pipe leaks.

This has a devastating impact on the environment and costs economies $14 billion per year worldwide. Identifying and fixing these leaks quickly is of the essence, however, it is currently a long and difficult process to find and identify these points manually.

Countries with older pipe networking systems, such as the UK, face particular challenges as the complex network of pipes will vary in age, condition and quality of material.

Water pipe robots are being developed to tackle this issue. Small enough to fit through tube holes, these ingenious machines can patrol pipe networks and automatically flag and seal leaks using autonomous artificial intelligence, or AI, technology. In the UK, where 3 billion liters of water are lost daily in England and Wales alone, miniature robots patrol up and down pipe networks, monitoring for faults in the system.

Currently mini robots attached to tethers are already used by water industries to identify and fix issues, however, autonomous robots, which can patrol the pipe networks themselves and carry out tasks without direction have been developed at the University of Sheffield.

So-called pipebots are mobile devices with cameras and legs that can navigate difficult terrain. Similar machines are also capable of swimming. The small, spider-like contraptions are able to move up and down the pipe and take photos and hear with a microphone, listening to discrepancies in water flow and checking the mechanical function of the tubes.

The robot can then autonomously make a decision preemptively, on whether the pipe is likely to develop a fault. This ability to prevent leaks from happening in the first place, instead of slowly reacting to them by digging all the way down once a burst is noticed, is a gamechanger for efficiency in the water industry.

Working underground, often in wet environments, is challenging for any robot. GPS signals cannot penetrate the average depth at which water pipes are laid, meaning that pipebots must communicate to each other using sound or short-range wifi signals.

Another solution from the researchers at Sheffield University is to deploy a large so-called mother robot, which can manage a smaller group of robots to coordinate and delegate tasks.

By intelligently marking out set navigation points, the robots can stay away from restricted areas, meaning that there is little risk of them turning up at consumer connection points.

Few things are as essential to life on Earth as water is. An estimated one quarter of the world's population is considered to be living in some kind of water insecurity.

The increase in global temperature through climate change will further place pressure on water resources. Greater evaporation in reservoirs and dry agricultural soils, which will require more watering, is a further cause for concern in many countries. This means that increasing the efficiency of plumbing systems worldwide and reducing the waste of such a precious resource is a high priority.

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