Roadworks 2
The UK government hopes robot repairs will significantly reduce closures and disruption to business

Micro robots to prevent road chaos by repairing pipes

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Nicola Byrne

Scientists from four British universities will use £7m of government investment to attempt to develop 1cm-long robotic devices with the ability to find and mend cracks in pipes.

The government hopes this will significantly reduce traffic closures due to roadworks and the disruption they cause to business and residents. One and a half million excavations take place every year and estimated loss to the economy of £5bn.

A further 14 projects backed by £19.6m government investment, through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, will see robots sent to hazardous work places such as offshore wind-farms and nuclear decommissioning facilities.

Researchers will test applications for new technologies, such as using Artificial Intelligence software on satellites in orbit to detect when repairs are needed, and drones for oil pipeline monitoring.

Chris Skidmore, science minister, said: “While for now we can only dream of a world without roadworks disrupting our lives, these pipe-repairing robots herald the start of technology that could make that dream a reality in the future.

“From deploying robots in our pipe network to cutting down traffic delays, to using robots in workplaces to keep people safer, this new technology could change the world we live in for the better. Experts in our top UK universities across the country are well-equipped to develop this innovative new technology.

“We have put research and development at the heart of our modern Industrial Strategy, with the biggest boost to funding in UK history to create high skill jobs and boost productivity across the country.”

Prof Sir Mark Walport, UK Research + Innovation chief executive, added: “The projects announced demonstrate how robots and artificial intelligence will revolutionise the way we carry out complex and dangerous tasks, from maintaining offshore wind farms to decommissioning nuclear power facilities.

“They also illustrate the leading role that the UK’s innovators are playing in developing these new technologies which will improve safety and boost productivity and efficiency.”

The £26.6m government funding boost is part of the Industrial Strategy. Innovate UK, part of UKRI, funded some of the projects through a new scheme called the Innovation Lab. The successful projects were:

Inspect, Maintain and Repair in Extreme Environments Collaborative R+D

  • Autonomous aquatic inspection and intervention led by ROVCO

  • Chimera | Robotic inspection of pressure vessels led by Forth Engineering
  • Connect-R led by Barrnon | An industrial-scale self-building modular robotic solution to provide robotic access to work-sites in hazardous environments
  • Prometheus | A reconfigurable robotic platform with advanced sensing for confined spaces led by Headlight AI

  • MIMREE | Multi-Platform Inspection Maintenance & Repair In Extreme Environment led by Plant Integrity

Demonstrator phase 2 projects

  • Advancing underwater vision for 3D Phase 2 led by ROVCO
  • LEO satellite-based AI demonstrator led by Myrtle Software
  • Unmanned surface vessels for rapid environmental assessment in challenging inland waterways and tidal environments led by Safeguard Nautica
  • Autonomous robotic intervention system for extreme maritime environments (ARISE) Stage 2 led by Autonomous Surface Vehicles
  • Demonstrator for robotic inspection and maintenance of offshore wind turbine blades led by Bladebug
  • In-service X-ray radiography of offshore wind blades led by INNVOTEK
  • Autonomous, robotic and AI enabled bio-fouling monitoring, cleaning and management system for offshore wind turbine foundations led by Innovative Technology + Science
Neptune

Neptune is a rugged advanced magnetic crawler with scan imaging on underwater structures such as pressure vessels, and offshore installations

  • WatchChainR led by Archangel Imaging
  • Offshore infrastructure robotic inspection system demonstrator led by Autonomous Devices

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