Researchers from the University of Leeds have developed a miniature robot that can move autonomously through narrow tubes to check for damage or leaks.
according to Frontier Science NewsThe robot, named Joey, is cheap, smart, small, and lightweight. Joeys can also move through inclined tubes on an incline or over slippery or muddy sediment at the bottom of the tubes.
Regular inspection of pipes for leaks or damage usually requires excavation. Not only is this process cumbersome and expensive, but it can cause disruption to traffic and the environment. Autonomous inspection/repair robots present the opportunity for significant savings for drinking water and wastewater distribution systems.
The researchers’ findings have been published in Frontiers in robotics and artificial intelligence.
The team says Joy is the first to be able to navigate alone through mazes of tubes up to 7.5 centimeters wide. Weighing only 70g, it is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.
Part of the current workpipeA project for the Universities of Sheffield, Bristol, Birmingham and Leeds, in collaboration with UK utility companies and other international academic and industry partners.
Joey moves on 3D printed “wheel legs” that roll across straight sections and walk over small obstacles. It is equipped with a range of energy-saving sensors that measure the distance to walls, joints and angles, navigation tools, a microphone and a camera with spotlights to photograph pipe faults and save images. The prototype cost just £300 (US$356) to produce.
Mud and slippery slopes
The team has shown that Joey is able to find his way, without any instruction from human operators, through an experimental network of tubes including a T-junction, a left and right corner, a dead end, an obstruction, and three straight sections. On average, Joey was able to explore about 1 meter of pipe network in just over 45 seconds.
Currently, Joeys have one weakness: they can’t right themselves if they inadvertently turn their backs on them, like a turtle turned upside down. The authors suggest that the next prototype will be able to overcome this challenge. Future generations of joysticks must also be waterproof, to operate underwater in tubes filled entirely with liquid.
The Pipebots scientists aim to develop a swarm of Joeys who communicate and work together, based on a larger “mother” robot named Kanga. The Kanga, currently under development and testing by some of the same authors at the Leeds School of Computing, will be equipped with more sophisticated sensors and repair tools such as robot arms, and carry multiple jaws.
“Ultimately, we hope to design a system that can examine and map the condition of extensive pipeline networks, monitor pipes over time, and even perform some maintenance and repair tasks,” says Cohen. “We envision the technology to expand and diversify, creating an environment of multiple types of robots collaborating underground. In this scenario, groups of Joeys would be deployed by larger robots that have greater strength and capabilities but are limited to larger tubes.”
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