In field testing, the robot was able to detect a 1 gpm leak
A team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is developing a robot that could one day be commonplace in utilities’ water distribution systems.
The robot, which looks like an oversized badminton birdie, can detect even the tiniest of leaks with precision, according to the team that has been developing it for the past nine years. It is inserted into a distribution system through a fire hydrant, then passively moves with the flow through the pipes, logging its position as it goes. It can detect small variations in pressure by sensing the pull at the edge of its soft, rubber skirt, which fills the pipe diameter. Once the robot is retrieved from another hydrant, the data it collected can be uploaded.
The team, called PipeGuard, is currently carrying out tests with the robot in 12-inch pipes in Monterrey, Mexico, and is preparing to do a presentation at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in September. The next step, after the Monterrey field testing, according to the team, is to make a more flexible, collapsible version of the robot that can adapt to different pipe diameters.
Earlier this year, the robot was tested on a pipe system in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia. The country’s King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals has sponsored and collaborated on much of PipeGuard’s work since water leakage is an expensive problem for the country. Most drinking water is provided through pricey desalination plants and about 33 percent is lost through leakage. The testing involved creating an artificial leak in a mile-long section of 2-inch pipe for the robot to find.
“We put the robot in from one joint, and took it out from the other. We tried it 14 times over three days, and it completed the inspection every time,” says You Wu, a graduate student on the PipeGuard team, noting that the robot even found a leak that was only 1 gpm.
The PipeGuard team hopes to eventually commercialize the robot, also equipping it with a special mechanism that could carry out instant repairs on the spot for small leaks.