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Robot repairs could terminate streetwork disruption by 2050

Raul Fuentes has a bold vision: a vison of a city which experiences zero disruption from streetworks by 2050. How? Through robots.

It’s all wrapped up in a Grand Challenge Project – one of seven research projects that are currently sharing a £21M five-year funding pot from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). It has funded four of these “grand challenges” and this one seeks out new ways of using robotics and autonomous systems to “restore the balance between engineered and natural systems in the cities of the future” (the others relate to infrastructure resilience, water scarcity and atomic engineering). The University of Leeds is leading it, and has £4.2M to spend on it.

“Cities have been slowly mechanised. But our vision is that the city heals itself,” says Fuentes, associate professor in infrastructure engineering at the university.

raul fuentes

raul fuentes

Fuentes: Developing remote controlled repair and maintenance technology

How? Through micro-robots living in below-ground infrastructure and healing it as it fails, bigger robots zapping around and fixing ground-level highways as need requires and, up in the sky, perching drones that buzz around and repair things like street lights.

It’s all fantastic stuff. But Fuentes has plenty of examples in mind – and prototypes either real or under development for all of them.

He knows, that in our industry, you need examples. Before recently joining the University of Leeds, Fuentes worked as a lecturer at University College London (UCL), and before that in industry for companies including Atkins, May Gurney and Arup where he gained substantial experience in the planning, design and delivery of diverse civil engineering projects. He still acts as consultant in projects in the areas of instrumentation and monitoring, tunnelling and ground engineering.

His research ethos is to “get done what the world wants done” (stolen from a Harvard ex-president), which reflects his highly practical approach, based on sound scientific principles.

Underground access

Let’s begin below ground. A pipe leaks. It disturbs the ground around it. It causes a sinkhole that causes massive disruption. That’s a 1mm crack causing chaos. His vision – and the vision his colleagues on the grand vision project is to fix that crack using robotics, before it gets to 1mm wide.

“The vision is to use robots like white blood cells in the human body, detecting problems and then solving them.”

The principle is ”Fire and Forget” – shoot a robot into the asset – in this case a water main – and leave it there, with the robot powering itself using the water flow to turn a turbine and attaching itself to the inner surface of the pipe to carry out any repairs it detects are necessary.

remote control crawler

remote control crawler

Mini maintenance machine for pipes

There’s already a prototype, called Djedi. It was used to probe its way into cavities in the Great Pyramid of Giza. It’s 170mm tall, 170mm wide and 800mm long.

That’s hardly micro enough for water pipes. Yet.

“We have a workstream looking at that. Inch worm locomotion is the inspiration.

“The ultimate aim is to go smaller. The whole thing will be 3D printed except the metallic spine. The vision is for it to be underground for years, bracing itself against the pipe, going about its business and repairing where it can.” This could involved small scale welding or glueing.

There are early discussions with Northern Gas Networks about getting Djedi or one of his derivatives into its pipes to look for corrosion. That’s not yet funded.

Moving up to street level, part two of the research covers what is being called perceive and patch. This is pothole repair but truly roboticised.

“The idea is to use drones flying above cities, collecting and sending data about road surface condition. Then on the ground robots would be doing 3D printing maybe to fix the pavements.

fuentes drone

fuentes drone

Prototype drone could be used for work in streetlights

“This is the thing that has really captured the press imagination,” he adds.

The final concept is above street level. Known as Perch & Repair it is a drone that perches on an asset – say a streetlight – that then does something as it is perched – say replace a bulb.

“Today, you have to close a lane, which is a two man job, bring in a cherry picker, which means working from height. It happens everywhere around the world. Why not use a drone?

This work is being led by one of Leeds’ partners, the University of Southampton. It is clearly early days, and clearly existing infrastructure is not robot-friendly (push fittings are much easier than screw fittings for example).

But you can see the thinking.

Intermediate visions

And Fuentes is not hanging around waiting. “We have intermediate visions,” he says. “For example by 2035 we want Leeds to be the first city in the word maintained by robots.”

And he insists he is not a lone wolf. “The city council is really on board with this,” he says, adding it is all part of a bigger plan. “We want to make Leeds the internationally recognised centre for robotics and smart infrastructure technology.”

Leeds is bidding to be European Capital of Culture in 2023 and would use such a moment for a “theatrical demonstration” of the robotics project.

There is no other centre in the world which is doing civils infrastructure robotics

And ahead of that momentum is building.

“The university is more or less already there. There is no other centre in the world which is doing civils infrastructure robotics,” he boldly claims. “I do believe in it,” he says.

But who else does? Specifically – who else with the money to invest? Fundamentally, where is the money coming from?

“A lot of people are interested. But people putting money in? That will happen.

Industry excitement

“Everybody in the industry is very excited about it. There is not a single contractor that hasn’t given us a call about it. We are not short of in-kind contributions. But monetarily – we’re not there yet. They want to see what it actually does. They probably want to see more prototypes.

And maybe some need assuaging on the social question. A city that maintains itself puts a lot of highway maintenance workers out of work. Fuentes takes this seriously. Part of the work does include a researcher looking at the social implications of the programme.

“We’ve done a lot of reading on this,” says Fuentes. “We’ve looked at Charlotte Bronte’s writing on the industrial revolution, which was the same argument. But there are always jobs created somehow,” he insists.

Bronte, the novelist and poet of Jane Eyre fame, considered in her follow-up novel Shirley the plight of workers’ during the Industrial Revolution and specifically the rise of the Luddites under leader Ned Ludd where workers would smash up the machinery they were employed to operate.

We’re clearly not there yet, but Fuentes and his colleagues are well aware of the need to be fully aware of the consequences of that robotics could bring.

Robotic infrastructure maintenance

The project: Balancing the impact of City Infrastructure Engineering on Natural systems using Robots

Led by: University of Leeds – with £4.2M of funding.

The research consortium aims to develop novel robotics and autonomous systems technologies in a traditional sector such as infrastructure management and repair. The system will be able to sense, diagnose and repair different aspects of infrastructure.

The consortium brings together researchers from Birmingham, Southampton and UCL - and builds on a number of other projects (Assessing the Underworld, iBuild and ICIF) which additionally involve Newcastle, Sussex, Sheffield, Bristol, Bath and Cranfield.

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