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Robots for pipe repairs: Future or present?

We are getting used to seeing drones in construction and engineering. But these Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are not the only independent machines around. Robots are also developing quickly and becoming cleverer and more accessible. Some of them are even capable of repairing pipes without shutting off the power. Sounds futuristic? Let’s take a look!

The UK will deploy robots to minimise road disruptions

According to Wikipedia, the first robot was built by George Devol in 1954. It was named ‘the Unimate’ and was sold to General Motors and used to lift pieces of hot metal. Now, sixty-six years later, robots can do much more than simple tasks like lifting pieces of metal.

An astonishing 1.5 million road excavations take place every year in the UK. The traffic closures and disruption to businesses are estimated to cost more than £5 billion. But maybe not for too much longer. The UK Government has committed a £26.6 million investment to build microrobots that can help repair the UK’s vast underground pipe network. These robots will not only help to repair underground pipes but also offshore oil and gas pipelines and wind turbines.

Science Minister Chris Skidmore said:

‘While for now we can only dream of a world without roadworks disrupting our lives, these pipe-repairing robots herald the start of technology that could make that dream a reality in the future’.

Although this research project started last year, there are other robots already working on-site. For example, we find robots being used for pipe inspections and small repairs. Sewer Robotics has created robots that are capable of identifying small cracks inside sewer pipes – and to also repair them! It uses an air coupling to connect with UV patching and spot repair packers. They can carry out trenchless pipe repairs inside pipes ranging from 150 to 500mm diameter.

Robots are already repairing pipes in London

Another big innovator in this area is Cadent – the largest gas provider in the UK. They started a £2.5 million project last year to fix underground pipes in London with a robot. Its name is Cisbot, and it has been developed by ULC Robotics. This robot can repair 100 metres of gas mains in seven days. If the same work was to be undertaken by human workers, it would instead take ten weeks. It’s not only 10 times faster, but it also minimises disruption thanks to its trenchless repairs. What’s even more impressive, it improves safety by removing many man-hours on-site and doing the ‘hard work’ for them.

Another significant benefit is that Cisbot can work inside live pipes. Thanks to this feature, Cadent has been able to carry out repairs to multiple pipes in London whilst maintaining the gas supply to neighbours. The robot only needs one excavation to be lowered into the ground and into the gas main. Once inside, it can be controlled remotely by an operator on the surface. When a crack is identified, the robot can inject a sealant and voila! – job done without endless trenches.

The future of pipe repairs with robots

And it seems that Cisbot is just setting the bar for the future of robots and pipe repairs. One of the most exciting and promising projects is the FSWBot – Friction Stir Welding Robotic Crawler. This robot can repair offshore pipes without stopping the associated service flow. It uses innovative technology for friction stir welding. Thanks to this, it generates enough frictional heat to soften the metal without melting it. This, in turn, allows metal components to be forged together at the joint line. The FSWBot is currently being developed by Forth Engineering in Cumbria. The funding comes from Innovate UK and it’s expected to be operational by January 2021.

Peter Routledge, project manager at Forth Engineering said:

‘The project is creating interest in the oil, water, waste, recycling and renewables industries, all looking at how they could apply it to make them more efficient.’

The robot’s pipe repair method is particularly interesting. Once deployed inside a cast-iron pipeline with oil flowing, it will lock itself at the position where the repair is needed. The robot has a turbine within a duct which uses the kinetic energy in the flow of oil to power the milling tool. Once it has accumulated enough energy, the milling tool will cut away the corroded area and put in place a steel patch.

The FSW unit will then weld the patch in place and use the milling tool to ensure it is flush with the pipe. Finally, the robot will deploy Non-Destructive Test packages to inspect the weld for quality assurance. A clean, complete job, without stopping the flow of oil in the pipe. Futuristic? Not really – most likely a reality from next year.

Have you heard about other technologies for pipe repairs? Share them in the comments below!


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