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4th January 2023

12 Days of Christmas: 11 pipers replaced by new pipe robots

To celebrate the 11th day of Christmas, find out how Joey, a small robot, could one day revolutionise pipe inspection
12 Days of Christmas: 11 pipers replaced by new pipe robots
CSIRO @ Science Image

Researchers from the University of Leeds have developed a new robot which can independently navigate around systems of pipes. It is hoped that this will help change the way sewage systems are inspected, making our sewers, and sewage workers, safer.

Designed as part of the international Pipebots program, the 70-gram robot, named Joey, has been designed to operate in a sewer or drainage pipes as small as 7.5cm in diameter.

Why is Joey needed?

Small pipes like these are difficult for humans to inspect, and so robots have been designed in the past to try to overcome this issue. However, most in current use are limited by their tethered crawler mechanism. These robots, guided from the surface by long cables, can often only move through straight pipes, and so have to be regularly redeployed at manhole covers.

Joey provides an interesting development in sewage inspection, as he can find his own way around. This will help save inspectors’ time, in turn, saving the taxpayer money, as well as reducing the inconvenience caused by long street works.

In lab tests, the robot demonstrated how it could use range sensors to navigate through a pipe network that included a T-junction, corners, a dead end, and an obstacle. It could also climb slopes steeper than any found in the UK sewage network.

What’s next for Joey?

Unfortunately, the robot’s small size and independent nature comes with one key disadvantage – a short battery life. Joey is so named due to the researchers’ long-term plan to develop a ‘Kanga’ mother robot, which would be restricted to wider sewage pipes, and could therefore have a larger battery. Kanga would then send the Joeys out to inspect smaller pipes along its route.

In addition, plans for the future include making Joey completely waterproof, and able to right themselves when flipped upside-down.

Unfortunately, due to humans’ ability to anthropomorphise useful pieces of machinery, I am now very worried about Joey’s future release into the sewage system.

Emma Hattersley

Emma Hattersley

Editor: Science and Technology Section

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