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MIT Robot Pinpoints Pipe Leaks

Friday, June 20, 2014

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A new self-propelled robotic device could detect exponentially smaller pipeline leaks of gas, water and oil than traditional systems can, its developers say.

A team at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) has introduced a robotic system that can pinpoint leaks quickly and accurately by sensing a large pressure change in leak locations.

Ideally, the device will be produced in various sizes to detect leaks in gas, water and oil pipes.

Courtesy of the researchers, via

The device is made of two parts: a small robot with wheels and a drum-like membrane that forms a seal across the width of the pipe.

The research was funded by the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Saudi Arabia through the Center for Clean Water and Clean Energy at MIT.

Nonstop Monitoring

The device is made of two parts: a small robot with wheels and a drum-like membrane that forms a seal across the width of the pipe. If a leak is detected, the moving liquid distorts the membrane and pulls it toward the leak. Sensors detect the distortion and send the information back to a monitoring system via wireless technology.

The system "can detect leaks of just 1 to 2 millimeters in size, and at relatively low pressure," said Dimitrios Chatzigeorgiou, a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering at MIT and lead author of the papers.

According to Chatzigeorgiou, acoustic tests now in use have several drawbacks: They are effective only on metal pipes (plastic pipes dissipate sounds too quickly), are time-consuming, and require expert operators.

However, the small robotic device can move at 3 mph through pipes and is almost entirely automated. Ultimately, the robots could be placed into a pipe system and left there indefinitely, conducting nonstop monitoring, Chatzigeorgiou said.

"We proved that the concept works," Chatzigeorgiou said.

Membrane Sensitivity

The researchers believe the robot can detect leaks 1/10 to 1/20 the size capable of current methods because of the membrane's sensitivity. They also hope the device will be much more affordable than current systems.

Image: Christine Daniloff/MIT (Rendering of robotic device courtesy of the researchers)

The system can detect leaks of just 1 to 2 millimeters in size, and at relatively low pressure.

Kamal Youcef-Toumi, co-author of the research and an MIT mechanical engineering professor, added, "This technology allows for an unambiguous and reliable sensing of very small leaks that often go undetected for long periods of time."

The idea was presented at two recent international conferences—the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Hong Kong and the American Control Conference in Portland, OR—and has been reported on in several papers.

Now researchers are talking to gas and water companies about setting up field tests under real conditions.



Tagged categories: Colleges and Universities; Gas detectors; Inspection; Pipelines; Research; Robotics; Technology

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