Pervasive Sensing for Buried Pipes

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Mechanical Engineering


In Europe, the total value of sewer assets amounts to 2 trillion Euros. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that water collection systems in the USA have a total replacement value between $1 and $2 trillion. Similar figures can be assigned to other types of buried pipe assets which supply clean water and gas. In China alone 40,000 km of new sewer pipes are laid every year. However, little is known about the condition of these pipes despite the pressure on water and gas supply utility companies to ensure that they operate continuously, safely and efficiently. In order to do this properly, the utility operator must identify the initial signs of failure and then respond to the onset of failure rapidly enough to avoid loss of potable water supply, wastewater flooding or gas escape. This is attempted through targeted inspection which is typically carried out through man-entry or with CCTV approaches, although more sophisticated (e.g. tethered) devices have been developed and are used selectively. Nevertheless, and in spite of the fact that the UK is a world leader in this research area, these approaches are slow and labour intensive, analysis is subjective, and their deployment disrupts traffic. Moreover, because these inspections are necessarily infrequent and only cover a small proportion of the pipe network, serious degradation is often missed and pipe failures occur unexpectedly, requiring emergency repairs that greatly disrupt life of the road and adjacent buried utility infrastructure.

This Programme Grant proposes a radical change in terms of buried pipe sensing in order to address the issues of pipe inspection and rehabilitation. It builds upon recent advances in sensors, nano- and micro-electronics research, communication and robotic autonomous systems and aims to develop a completely new pervasive robotics sensing technology platform which is autonomous and covers the entire pipe network. These robots will be able to travel, cooperate and interrogate the pipes from the inside, detect the onset of any defects continuously, navigate to and zoom on sub-millimetre scale defects to examine them in detail, communicate and guide any maintenance equipment to repair the infrastructure at an early sign of deterioration. By being tiny, they do not present a danger of being stuck, blocking the pipe if damaged or run out of power. By being abundant, they introduce a high level of redundancy in the inspection system, so that routine inspection can continue after a loss of a proportion of the sensors in the swarm. By making use of the propagation of sonic waves and other types of sensing these robots can monitor any changes in the condition of the pipe walls, joints, valves and lateral connections; they can detect the early development and growth of sub-millimetre scale operational or structural faults and pipe corrosion. An important benefit of this sensing philosophy is that it mimics nature, i.e. the individual sensors are small, cheap and unsophisticated, but a swarm of them is highly capable and precise. This innovation will be the first of its kind to deploy swarms of miniaturised robots in buried pipes together with other emerging in-pipe sensor, navigation and communication solutions with long-term autonomy. Linked to the related previous work, iBUILD (EP/K012398), ICIF (EP/K012347) and ATU's Decision Support System (EP/K021699), this Programme Grant will create the technology that has flexibility to adapt to different systems of governance globally.

This work will be done in collaboration with a number of industry partners who will help to develop a new set of requirements for the new pervasive robotic sensing platform to work in clean water, wastewater and gas pipes. They will support the formation and operation of the new research Centre of Autonomous Sensing for Buried Infrastructure in the UK and ensure that the results of this research have strong practical outcomes.

Planned Impact

This research will have very considerable non-academic impact, targeted as follows:

1. Current End User Stakeholders. There will be a continual process of engagement with our end user partners (e.g. utilities, their supply chain and regulators) informing them of new developments and future capabilities providing them with the opportunity to co-create the research and technical development as the programme advances. The team is already engaged with these partners through ongoing research and consultancy projects. We will expand this engagement through a planned programme of bespoke meetings, extended workshops and staff exchanges. The meetings, workshops and staff exchanges will ensure a deep two-way dialogue to allow the PG team to understand precisely and respond appropriately to current end user needs and exploit opportunities as they develop.

2. Wider End User Community. We will disseminate the results of our research in professional journals and trader press magazines, which are read widely by practitioners and which have proved effective in the past to help to facilitate technology trials and subsequent adoption by utilities. We will also target industry-focused events such as CIWEM's UDG annual conference, where presentations will be made to raise awareness of the capabilities of the technology so that relationships can be developed with utilities and their consultants. We will use the networks of our end user project partners to communicate the programme's outputs to a wider audience in different spheres of the industrial sector. We will offer annual workshops and webinars at which engineers and managers will be given hands-on and interactive experiences on how autonomous sensors can be used to inspect infrastructure pervasively.

3. General Public. We will win the support of the general public through a carefully prepared sequence of social media activities, press releases of key achievements, public lectures on topical research issues, school workshops and on-line webinars. These will focus on the role of sensing in society, the advantages of autonomous inspection of buried infrastructure, the opportunities for reducing traffic congestion through fewer road excavations and the benefits for society through the novel use of robots for sensor deployment pervasively.

4. Policy Makers. This Programme Grant involves a team that is closely engaged with key professional bodies in the UK and overseas. This will enable us to interact very closely with the professional bodies and help them influence the R&D policies being developed by governments to support the adoption of this technology platform more widely. These include the work of at least the six leading professional bodies in the UK: National Infrastructure Commission, Institution of Civil Engineers, Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Institution of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, Institute of Acoustics and Institute of Physics. We will also interact with the appropriate regulators in order to change policy and modify current asset management practices.


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