Inspection robots keep our water flowing

Developments in robotics are set to continue to be a key feature in providing solutions for Britain's ageing water infrastructure, helping to spot cracks and plug leaks across 400,000 miles of pipework.

According to water regulator Ofwat, around three billion litres of water are lost through water pipe leaks in the UK every day, creating a big problem for water suppliers responsible for ensuring clean water reaches millions of homes and businesses up and down the country. 

Amongst the many headaches for water company bosses are ageing infrastructure, environmental factors such as heavy traffic or growing tree roots and the impact of climate change resulting in droughts and flash floods, all of which have a detrimental impact on pipe networks.

Dave Walsha, sales manager at DC motor supplier EMS, believes cutting demand forms part of the solution, especially as the scale of the water network means that overhauling the entire system at once isn’t feasible.

He says encouraging consumers to be more mindful about their water use and opt for more economical appliances can go some way towards tackling the problem. 

But with a fifth of all water treated lost to leakages, it’s clear that preventing and fixing leaks more quickly must be an area of focus. 

 And that’s where robots could play more of a role, he says.

“Damaged pipes and leaks at the surface can be spotted quickly, but hidden leaks underground can go unnoticed for much longer periods, resulting in increased water loss and higher repair costs," says Walsha.

“Working in such conditions can be dangerous for operators, and not all pipes are large enough for humans to move through safely. 

“In these situations, the pipe must be exposed through digging for access, which often leads to disruption to pipes under roads and businesses.” 

He adds the method of leak detection can also be a problem. 

“Traditionally, opting for acoustic leak detection equipment was the preferred method, which works well in metal-based pipes,” he says. 

“However, with modern pipes increasingly being made from plastic, taking the same approach isn’t quite as effective, as plastic doesn’t transmit sounds the way that metal does. 

“And where pipe networks are comprised of a combination of both these materials, it can be much harder to accurately pinpoint the location of the leak. 

“Opting for a more preventative approach could allow potential issues to be identified before they become a major leak - but with the majority of the network under our roads and businesses, and with miles to cover, how do we go about investigating it?” 

Continuous advancements in robotic technology are leading to the development of inspection robots built for such applications, Walsha says. 

“Offering engineers the ability to inspect pipes remotely, these robots can help pinpoint the exact location of potential faults, making it easier for repair teams to rectify problems with minimal disruption to users and in a shorter timeframe. 

“Eventually, such robots could lead to the creation of new and improved bots harbouring both inspection and repair functionalities.”

He adds that to identify weaknesses and potential problems in the pipework, inspection robots host a variety of technology onboard, including cameras. 

A series of motors allow the camera to pan, tilt and focus, helping engineers to obtain a full 360-degree view of the pipe. 

Positioning sensors help the robot to navigate the bends and changing diameters within the pipe network. 

Ultrasonic sensors can be added to measure wall thicknesses and identify pipe defects. 

Other options include adding drives for tool functions, such as the ability to carry sealants to fix small cracks or grinders to remove corrosion. 

Walsha says: “The quality of the drive systems powering the inspection robot are integral to its success. 

“The motors must be robust and be able to cope with harsh operating conditions, including temperature extremes, humidity and being partially or fully submerged in water.

“Response times must be short to ensure that the movement of the robot is coordinated with the operator’s camera feed.” 

He adds the motors must also be capable of providing enough torque to move the robot through dirt or debris on the floor of the pipe, and able to work continuously for extended periods of time - and with inspection robots expected to fit in pipes as small as 200 mm in diameter, this must all be achieved within a compact space. 

“Finding motors that are up to such requirements can be a challenge, but solutions are available,” Walsha says, adding FAULHABER DC-micromotors, supplied in the UK and Ireland exclusively by EMS, have already been successfully implemented into such applications, allowing for remote and thorough inspections of pipes deep underground.  

“As the demands placed on our water infrastructure grow, it’s imperative that operators and manufacturers take the time now to seek out solutions,” he says.  

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