According to water regulator Ofwat, around three billion litres of water are lost through water pipe leaks in the UK every day. With over 400,000 miles of pipes making up our water infrastructure, spotting cracks and finding leaks isn’t an easy task. Could robotics provide the answer? In this article, Dave Walsha, sales manager at DC motor supplier EMS, explains how inspection robots could help secure our water supply.
With the responsibility of providing crucial water services to millions of homes and businesses up and down the country, the demand placed on water management companies is high. But the sector is currently facing a wealth of problems. Much of the current infrastructure is aging, with old pipes often made from materials that are no longer fit for purpose, such as rust-prone iron.
An aging network isn’t the only issue. Environmental factors, such as heavy traffic or growing tree roots apply additional pressure, causing pipes to shift or crack. Climate change presents additional challenges, with droughts and flash floods expected to become more frequent. In a drought, excessively dry soil can become loose and allow space for pipes and pipe joints to become displaced; on the flip side, floods can cause an overflow of water where pipes are blocked.
Combining these issues with the UK’s slow speed to replace pipe infrastructure highlights the scale of the problem. The Environmental Agency Chief Executive, Sir James Bevan, delivered a speech back in 2019 outlining that, in less than 25 years, many water companies are expecting to reach a critical point — where there is no longer enough water to meet demand.
Efforts must be made now to move away from the current trajectory to ensure the safety and security of our water supply. The question is, how?
The scale of the water network means that overhauling the entire system at once isn’t feasible. Instead, we must look for ways to reduce the demand. Encouraging consumers to be more mindful about their water use and opt for more economical appliances can help to tackle the problem. But with a fifth of all water treated lost to leakages, it’s clear that preventing and fixing leaks should quickly become an area of focus.
Improving pipe insulation can help to shield pipes from sharp temperature changes and prevent them from shifting. But finding tiny cracks in miles and miles of pipework presents a much harder problem to tackle. Damaged pipes and leaks at the surface can be spotted quickly, but hidden leaks underground can go unnoticed for much longer periods, resulting in increased water loss and higher repair costs.
Working in such conditions can be dangerous for operators, and not all pipes are large enough for humans to move through safely. In these situations, the pipe must be exposed through digging for access, which often leads to disruption to pipes under roads and businesses.
The method of detection can also be a problem. Traditionally, opting for acoustic leak detection equipment was the preferred method, which works well in metal-based pipes. However, with modern pipes increasingly being made from plastic, taking the same approach isn’t quite as effective, as plastic doesn’t transmit sounds the way that metal does. And where pipe networks are comprised of a combination of both these materials, it can be much harder to accurately pinpoint the location of the leak.
Opting for a more preventative approach could allow potential issues to be identified before they become a major leak. But with the majority of networks lying under our roads and businesses, and with miles to cover, how do we go about investigating it?
Bring in the robots
Advancements in robotic technology are leading to the development of inspection robots built for such applications. Offering engineers the ability to inspect pipes remotely, these robots can help pinpoint the exact location of potential faults, making it easier for repair teams to rectify problems with minimal disruption to users and in a shorter timeframe. Eventually, such robots could lead to the creation of new and improved bots harbouring both inspection and repair functionalities.
To identify weaknesses and potential problems in the pipework, inspection robots host a variety of technology onboard. Most common will be some kind of visual inspection system, such as a camera. A series of motors allow the camera to pan, tilt and focus, helping engineers to obtain a full 360-degree view of the pipe. Positioning sensors help the robot to navigate the bends and changing diameters within the pipe network.
Ultrasonic sensors can be added to measure wall thicknesses and identify pipe defects. Other options include adding drives for tool functions, such as the ability to carry sealants to fix small cracks or grinders to remove corrosion.
The quality of the drive systems powering the inspection robot are integral to its success. The motors must be robust and be able to cope with harsh operating conditions, including temperature extremes, humidity and being partially or fully submerged in water. Response times must be short to ensure that the movement of the robot is coordinated with the operator’s camera feed.
The motors must also be capable of providing enough torque to move the robot through dirt or debris on the floor of the pipe, and able to work continuously for extended periods of time. And with inspection robots expected to fit in pipes as small as 200 mm in diameter, this must all be achieved within a compact space.
Finding motors that are up to such requirements can be a challenge, but solutions are available. FAULHABER DC-micromotors, supplied in the UK and Ireland exclusively by EMS, have already been successfully implemented into such applications, allowing for remote and thorough inspections of pipes deep underground.
As the demands placed on our water infrastructure grow, it’s imperative that operators and manufacturers take the time now to seek out solutions. Using the power of robotics to automate inspections, faults can be spotted much more quickly, keeping workers safe, keep disruption to a minimum and most importantly, ensuring safe and secure water services for the country.