Leaky pipes can be a huge problem, and the solution is often complex and costly. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology want to change that.
A group of researchers from the school have developed a small robot that can inspect water and gas pipes from the inside to locate leaks before they become disastrous. The rubbery device, which looks like an "oversized badminton birdie" is inserted into a water system via a fire hydrant, MIT says.
Once inserted, the device "moves passively with the flow, logging its position as it goes," according to MIT. "It detects even small variations in pressure by sensing the pull at the edges of its soft rubber skirt, which fills the diameter of the pipe."
The robot can be retrieved with a net at a different hydrant. From there, the data is uploaded for analysis. This system doesn't require any digging, and won't interrupt water service.
According to MIT, today's water distribution systems lose 20 percent of their supply, on average, because of leaks.
"These leaks not only make shortages worse but also can cause serious structural damage to buildings and roads by undermining foundations," the school said. Exacerbating the issue is the fact that today's leak detection systems are "expensive and slow to operate," and they don't work well in wood, clay or plastic pipes, which are common in developing countries.
That's where the little robot comes in.
MIT professor of mechanical engineering Kamal Youcef-Toumi, graduate student You Wu and two others have been designing and testing this system for the past nine years. They plan to describe the system in detail at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in Vancouver, Canada, this September.
The team also plans to test the system this summer on the city of Monterrey, Mexico's concrete water distribution pipes. "Monterrey … has a strong incentive to take part in this study, since it loses an estimated 40 percent of its water supply to leaks every year, costing the city about $80 million in lost revenue," MIT says. "Leaks can also lead to contamination of the water supply when polluted water backs up into the distribution pipes."
The system can also be used to detect leaks in pipes distributing natural gas. In the future, the team plans to build a more flexible version of their robot, which can adapt to pipes of different sizes. Their ultimate goal is to outfit their robot with a special system that can instantly repair leaks it finds.