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Pipe-crawling robot could revolutionise utility inspections

17 May, 2022

Robotics experts at the UK’s Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) have developed an autonomous robot vehicle designed to move along underground pipes to carry out inspections. The invention has the potential cut costs cost and improve efficiency for utilities, as well as preventing pipework leaks and reducing human exposure to hazardous environments.

Nicknamed Ratty the Robot, the untethered, wheeled inspection robot can carry out tasks in environments that would defeat most robots. Guided by lasers, the robot can drive itself, reducing the need for a human operator. It can map complex pipework and tunnel systems that have built up over many years.

Dr Mahesh Dissanayake, an advanced robotics research engineer at the MTC, says the pipe-crawling robot could help utilities to cut costs and boost their efficiencies. “This proof-of-concept robot can travel in confined spaces, inspecting networks while working fully autonomously. It opens up the opportunity for inspecting far more of the underground network at a much reduced cost, reducing failure rates and flagging up potential problems.

“With technology advancing all the time, the next exciting step could be a robot which not only inspects pipework, but is capable of carrying out repairs remotely without having to dig up roads,” he adds.

Currently, drainage, sewage and gas supply pipes are usually inspected by tethered devices managed by operators. This approach is costly, slow and labour-intensive, and some areas can be hard to reach. The MTC’s tetherless concept robot can navigate confined areas autonomously, allowing the operator to focus on the inspection.

Ratty, the autonomous pipe-inspection robot, could cut costs for utilities
Image: Steph White Photography

The robot has undergone simulated trials at a test facility in Yorkshire operated by Synthotech, which develops products and services for utilities. “It’s been great to put this proof-of-concept through its paces in a range of simulated environments,” says the company’s engineering director, Simon Langdale. “Automation of inspections for pipes is a key area that can help build better understanding of the complex infrastructure underground.

“We have been able to benchmark our current live access robotics against automated robotics and make sure that we can stay at the cutting edge with support from the MTC,” he adds.

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