Leeds to build robot and drone technicians for ‘self-repairing city’ by 2035
Funding for university project aims to create a city with self-regulating infrastructure within 20 years.
Leeds University has won £4.2m of funding to develop small robots that can act autonomously to identify and repair problems with pipes, street lights and roads.
The aim of the project is to turn Leeds into a “self-healing city”, in which problems can be fixed with minimal environmental impact and disruption to the public, by 2035.
The grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which is funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), will be matched by a number of “major infrastructure companies and robotic suppliers”, that are partnering on the £7.8m project.
Phil Purnell, professor of materials and structures at Leeds University, who is leading the research, explained: “This is about creating systems that can repair themselves. Often people talk about the city as an organism, but what is missing is the ability to heal itself. We are taking the next step towards making this possible.”
Purnell was keen to emphasise that the study will actually be creating prototypes: “This is a science project but it is totally focused on real-world applications. We are not studying theory on this project: we are building robots.”
“We are designing a drone that can be automatically alerted when a bulb is broken and replace it. It may mean a small modification to the existing infrastructure so that it can be replaced by an autonomous system, but it’s crazy to send a cherry-picker and three blokes to change a light bulb.”
Phil Purnell, Leeds University
“Our long-term goal is for there to be no disruptions in Leeds due to street works by 2035, but in the short term we want to create demonstrable systems. Prototypes already exist that can survey pipes, we need to make these autonomous and active,” he continued.
The research will focus on three major developments: drones that can perch on structures at height and perform repair tasks, such as mending street lights; drones that can inspect, diagnose, repair and prevent potholes in roads; and robots that will operate within live utility pipes, performing inspection, repair, metering and reporting tasks.
Although these will work within the city’s existing infrastructure, some material changes will need to be made. For example, perches will have to be built on lampposts to allow the drones to operate and light fittings may need to be updated.
“We are designing a drone that can be automatically alerted when a bulb is broken and replace it,” said Purnell. “It may mean a small modification to the existing infrastructure so that it can be replaced by an autonomous system, but it’s crazy to send a cherry-picker and three blokes to change a light bulb.”
To identify defects, the drones and robots will need access to digital as-built versions of pipes and roads to compare with what they scan. For new buildings and infrastructure this will be obtained directly from a BIM model.
“The robots need to know what a pipe building is supposed to look like so they can identify if something is wrong,” said Purnell. “They can then compare a schematic with what they can see and fix it if they need to. Ideally they will take data from multiple sources, and information from BIM models will be invaluable.”
Purnell said that constant surveying of pipes will mean that issues can be resolved at an earlier stage: “Much of our focus will initially be on the maintenance of pipes, as that is a nasty problem.”
He added: “Most problems start as small defects and if our robots can find these and spray something onto them to solve them, then we shouldn’t constantly be digging up roads and disrupting the city.”