$17.6m Project Could Provide Robotic Retrofit to Ageing Pipe Network

12 February 2010

A team of engineers at UCI are working on robotic technology to rehabilitate the America’s aging water infrastructure.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, six billion gallons of clean, treated drinking water disappears every day, mostly due to old, leaky pipes and mains.

One solution to this problem could be achieved by using robots to apply composite materials to the inside of faulty pipe work.

“This is a nationwide emergency,” says Maria Feng, Civil & Environmental Engineering Professor at UC Irvine. “Some pipelines are nearly 100 years old, and the problem is very serious, especially in urban areas, where it’s difficult to access leaking and burst pipes.”

The UCI team has joined forced with Fibrwrap Construction and Fyfe Company to build a prototype robot that could repair and retrofit aging water pipes.

“Currently, construction crews must dig trenches to find damaged pipe segments, which is a passive and expensive way of fixing the water system,” Feng says. “In cities, trenching can be impossible.”

It was announced in December that the $17.6 million robot project will receive $8.5 million over five years from the National Institute of Standards & Technology’s very competitive Technology Innovation Program, which supports high-risk, high-reward research addressing critical national needs, such as infrastructure monitoring and repair. Only 20 projects won TIP awards in 2009.

Simple robots have been used to inspect pipes for some time, but the task of robotically applying a carbon-fiber coating to the insides of old pipes with unpredictable flaws, imperfect shapes and uneven surfaces is a far bigger technical challenge, says Feng, whose UCI team includes Masanobu Shinozuka, Distinguished Professor and chair of civil & environmental engineering and a world-renowned expert in structural engineering.

Robots are being designed so they can seek-out and repair areas requiring reinforcements. In 2008, Shinozuka won a TIP award to develop this water-pipe-damage-detecting technology. UCI say they are only institution to have received TIP funding in both 2008 and 2009.

“This robot needs to be intelligent,” says Feng, who is internationally known for her invention of sensors that continually monitor the soundness of bridges, buildings and other structures. “It has to see and feel and constantly adjust to the pipe surface. Smart robots like this are very different from those used in manufacturing.”

She anticipates that the robot ultimately will adapt to various pipe sizes and conditions and will be able to lay carbon-fiber coating 11 times faster than human crews.

“If this project is successful,” Feng says, “a commercialized robotic system could potentially save the U.S. economy about $245 billion and give the nation a lead in the growing world market for water infrastructure technology.”



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