Miniature robots have been developed by scientists to perform routine inspections of pipe networks for defects and spills.
They claim that without automation, network maintenance will be “impossible.”
Companies are “spending billions” in leaks, Water UK, an industry group, told BBC News.
Although water firms haven’t been investing as much as they should, according to a recent Ofwat assessment. It singled out a number of companies that it claimed were “letting down customers and the environment” by not investing enough in upgrades. Leakage, according to Water UK’s response, is “at its lowest level since privatisation.”
The problem of leaks is pervasive and intricate: Hundreds of thousands of kilometres of pipe, ranging in age and condition, bring water to millions of homes across the UK.
Essex and Suffolk Water’s Colin Day said, “In [this region], we look after almost 8,500km (5,282 miles] of pipe, and only about half the leaks in those pipes are visible, which means it’s tough to locate where [the other half] are.”
This year, water waste has become a hot topic. Three water utilities, South East Water, South West Water, and Yorkshire Water, continue to enforce localised hosepipe bans in the wake of the summer drought, per data from Water UK. Additionally, Ofwat believes that 20% of customers in England and Wales are having trouble paying their water bill due to the current cost of living.
The good news is that businesses have cut their leakage by roughly 6% on average in the past year, as reported by Ofwat.
To meet a government goal, the business community has pledged to reduce water waste by 50 percent by 2050. Water UK acknowledged the need to “accelerate” progress. “We’re using the newest technologies, including special in-pipe cameras, satellite imagery, thermal drone technology, high-tech probes, and artificial intelligence,” it told BBC News.
Currently running at our feet’s level
England and Wales have more than 300,000 miles of water main, while the rest of the UK has roughly 217,000 miles.
Different types of plastic, cast iron, and steel are used in the construction of the network.
According to the Energy Saving Trust, daily domestic water consumption in the United Kingdom totals about 350 litres.
Northumbria Water, the company that owns Essex and Suffolk Water, took us to the site of the leak so that they could make repairs. A team was digging carefully at a suburban site, avoiding the buried sewer pipe, gas supply, and power cables.
Flow monitoring in our network allowed us to spot this one, said Essex and Suffolk Water’s Colin Day, so it wasn’t visible.
“Major leaks, such as broken pipes, have been addressed. These more subtle, occult leaks are what we’re looking for.”
As a preventative measure against catastrophic pipe failure, Essex and Suffolk Water is experimenting with “non-dig” fixes, such as sealants that may be injected into pipes without risking public safety. Some researchers claim that tiny robots will usher in a technological revolution in the field of leak prevention.
The use of tethered robots for inspecting otherwise inaccessible pipes is already being implemented by some businesses. Unfortunately, as present, digging is required to reach the majority of the network. The role played here by miniature, AI-powered devices is clear.
At the University of Sheffield’s Integrated Civil and Infrastructure Research Centre (ICAIR), a new generation of subterranean robotic pipe patrollers is undergoing testing.
Pipebots are tiny, camera-equipped robots that can move around on any surface. They are being developed in tandem with the water sector to monitor piping and detect vulnerabilities prior to the emergence of leaks.
At the present time, “companies only react reactively to errors” rather than “proactively,” as Prof. Kirill Horoshenkov puts it. Robots must be present to continuously gather data in advance of the emergence of defects.
Professor Horoshenkov, holding the robot in his hand like a toy vehicle, elaborated “Along the way, they take images and use a microphone to listen to the pipe. It is their job to determine if a problem in the pipe is likely to occur.”