Access to clean, safe water is one of the most urgent needs throughout the world. However, modern water supply systems lose an average of 20% of water due to leaks. They not only worsen the quality of water supply, but can also cause serious damage to buildings and roads, eroding the foundations. Leak detection systems are expensive and slow to work: they do not work well where the pipes made of wood, clay or plastics, which make up the majority of water systems in the world, are installed.
MIT researchers are trying to solve this problem . According to scientists, the new system is able to quickly and cheaply search for even tiny leaks, regardless of the material from which the pipes are made. The development and testing of such a system took nine years – all this time worked on it, the engineering professor Kamal Youcef Toumi (Kamal Youcef Toumi) and his team PipeGuard. Scientists are ready to present the results of their work at the upcoming IEEE / RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS) in September.
In the summer of 2017, the team tests on 12-inch concrete water distribution pipes in the city of Monterrey, Mexico. In this city, the administration allowed to carry out the tests not by chance – every year Monterrey loses about 40% of water because of leaks, and damage in the form of lost profits is estimated at about $ 80 million. At the same time, leaks lead to general water pollution, since leaking water sometimes returns to distribution pipes.
The system uses a small rubber robot that looks like a shuttlecock for badminton. The device can be incorporated into the water supply system through any fire hydrant. There it passes passively passively, registering its location as it moves forward. In parallel, the robot detects even small changes in pressure, measuring its magnitude with a rubber "skirt" that fills the diameter of the pipe.
The device is then extracted from the other hydrant by the network, the data is analyzed. At the same time, you do not need to dig anything or even interrupt the water supply. In addition to the passive robot that moves through the pipe, drawn by the force of water, the team of scientists has developed an active version that can control its own movement.
PipeGuard intends to commercialize its robotic leak detection system to reduce overall losses. For example, in Saudi Arabia, where most of the drinking water is provided by expensive desalination plants, about 33% is lost due to leakage. And the first field tests in early 2017 were there.
Pipetech LLS, a pipeline service provider in Al Khobar, provided a rusty pipe section of about 1.6 km in length and 2 inches in diameter for the experiment. This pipeline system is often used to test and certify new technologies. Tests of robots in pipes with bends and T-shaped connections suggested the creation of an artificial leak to demonstrate the capabilities of the system.
During this experiment, the robot successfully detected leaks and distinguished them from false signals caused by changes in pressure or pipe size, roughness or tube orientation in space. Tests were conducted 14 times for three days, and each time, according to a member of the PipeGuard team, graduate student Yu Wu (You Wu), were successful. Moreover, the robot found a tiny leakage, which was about 3.5 liters (gallons) per minute, one tenth of the minimum size that standard detection methods can average on average.
After field tests in Monterrey, the team Plans to create a more flexible folding version of his robot, which can quickly adapt to pipes of different diameters. For example, the Boston pipeline system is a "mix" of 6-, 8- and 12-inch pipes. Many of them were installed so long ago that in the city there are no exact data on their exact location. The new version of the robot will be able to open like an umbrella and work in pipes of different diameters.
According to researchers, the robot's importance is not only to reduce water losses, but also to provide a more secure and reliable water supply. The ability of a robotic system to detect the smallest leakage will allow for timely repair work long before a really serious accident. Moreover, robots can be used both in water pipes and in other distribution systems, for example, natural gas.
Such pipes are also often old and not marked on maps. They can accumulate gas, which leads to serious explosions. However, leaks in a gas pipeline are usually difficult to detect until they become large enough so that a person can smell the added odorants. In fact, the MIT system was originally designed to detect these leaks, and was later adapted to the water supply system.
PipeGuard hopes that eventually the robot will not only search for leaks, but will also receive a special mechanism by which small leaks can be repaired On the spot.