A Bot to Stop Water, Water Everywhere
Slithering through the skinniest of pipes and navigating the sharpest of turns, a new robot could help head off leaks and failures across Europe's aged water and heating networks.
Leaky pipes cost Europe about one-third of its drinking water—a massive drain that the new bot may help reverse.
The robot, developed by Breivoll Inspection Technologies and Det Norske Veritas, is part of an EU-led project called TRACT that began a year ago.
Working with Spanish and Italian corporate and research partners, the EU hopes to develop an inspection robot that can take measurements from different types of pipes without shutting down water supplies.
Enter the thin new robot, which can swim straight through the narrowest of pipes.
The unit is long and driven by propellers that guide it through water and heating pipe systems, including branching pipes.
The robot is equipped with 64 ultrasound transducers that transmit and receive ultrasound signals. The unit collects data to calculate pipe thickness and levels of corrosion.
Project TRACT was launched December 2013 and will be completed next year.
"What we're doing here is quite unique," said Gorm Johansen of SINTEF ICT, one of the corporate partners. Johansen and industrial design firm Inventas are responsible for the development and mechanical design of the robot.
"The inspection units we use today are large and long," said Johansen. "We are now producing a unit that can be sent through pipes as narrow as 10 centimeters in diameter."
According to Johansen, the robot can travel 150 meters into a pipe and can tackle junctions at angles of up to 90 degrees.
"In order to reduce the amount of rust particles entering the water, the unit must have only minimal contact with the pipe walls," Johansen explained.
"This means that it must be smaller than today's robots and contain fewer transducers. It must also be more flexible and pliant."
This YouTube video shows a brief demonstration of how the robot works.
Many current inspection units are driven by wheels or belts, which cause contaminant particles to be shed from the bottom of pipes, according to Johansen.
The new system uses propellers instead of wheels, which are installed at the front and rear of the unit. Spring-loaded fins come in contact with the pipe wall.
The project has been divided into several parts. A 3D-print model was built to be tested in a pipe filled with water.
The pipe wall inspection starts when the unit is removed from the pipe. The ultrasound signals hit the pipe's metal walls, and the wall thickness is computed from the returning signals. By locking the joints at each end of the unit, the robot can rotate, measuring the entire length of the pipe.
"Inspections of this kind are among the most difficult operations we have to carry out in the water distribution sector," said Lars Brenna at Breivoll.
"But we expect that the concept being developed today will be able to resolve some of the problems we have yet to tackle. In Norway, poor quality water pipes are responsible for drinking water losses of between 30 and 40 percent, so it's essential that we come up with innovative solutions."