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February 5, 2019 -
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Expensive and disruptive excavation to diagnose and repair buried pipes soon could be a thing of the past. The United Kingdom government has funded $9 million of research to develop microrobots that could autonomously detect and repair cracks in buried pipes. The research is part of a $35 million robotics initiative aimed at developing solutions for hazardous or difficult-to-reach locations, with a goal of reducing workplace injuries and the disruption caused by traditional inspection-and-repair strategies. Still in the early research and development stage, the pipe microbot initiative takes design inspiration from insects and worms and envisions tiny robots, on the scale of 1 centimeter, that can work in swarms to map pipe networks in real time and analyze the health of pipe walls. Other slightly larger bots could be controlled remotely to execute more involved repairs on pipes or to remove blockages. The pipe robots are being developed by research teams at the universities of Leeds, Bristol, Birmingham, and Sheffield. A market-ready solution is expected to be viable within five years. Robots are already becoming familiar in the built environment, performing security, cleaning, and room service tasks. Naomi Millán is senior editor, Building Operating Management.