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UK Government invests in tiny robots to fix underground pipes

  • By Neil Martin
  • News

The Government has backed a project to develop tiny robots that can help repair the UK’s vast underground pipe network and prevent disruption of roadworks in the future.

The £7m investment will allow scientists from four British universities to develop 1 cm-long robotic devices that use sensors and navigation systems to find and mend cracks in pipes. The traffic closures and disruption to businesses of these roadworks is estimated to amount to more than £5bn.

It’s part of a bigger project to build micro robots that can help repair the UK’s vast underground pipe network preventing disruptive roadworks and using robotics in hazardous work environments to avoid workplace injury.

The robots – including flying and underwater versions – will also inspect and maintain oil and gas pressure vessels and offshore wind turbines.

The project is backed by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy; Health and Safety Executive; Innovate UK; and, UK Research and Innovation.

The funding comes from the government’s modern Industrial Strategy to invest in the industries of tomorrow.

A further 14 projects backed by £19.6m government investment, through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF), will see robots sent to hazardous work places such as offshore wind-farms and nuclear decommissioning facilities. Researchers will test new technologies, such as the use of artificial intelligence (AI) software on satellites in orbit to detect when repairs are needed, and drones for oil pipeline monitoring.

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

“From deploying robots in our pipe network so cutting down traffic delays, to using robots in workplaces to keep people safer, this new technology could change the world we live in for the better. Experts in our top UK universities across the country are well-equipped to develop this innovative new technology.

“We have put research and development at the heart of our modern Industrial Strategy, with the biggest boost to funding in UK history to create high skill jobs and boost productivity across the country.”

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Chief Executive, Professor Sir Mark Walport said: “The projects announced today demonstrate how robots and artificial intelligence will revolutionise the way we carry out complex and dangerous tasks, from maintaining offshore wind farms to decommissioning nuclear power facilities.

“They also illustrate the leading role that the UK’s innovators are playing in developing these new technologies which will improve safety and boost productivity and efficiency.

The £26.6m government funding boost is part of the modern Industrial Strategy, investing in the technologies of tomorrow and creating high skilled jobs across the country. The UK already develops world-leading robotics technologies, and these projects delivered by UKRI will help make this a sector for UK businesses to grow and dominate international markets.

Health and Safety Executive Chair Martin Temple said: “The key purpose of the Health and Safety Executive is to save lives and prevent workplace injury and ill health. To achieve this, we need businesses to work with us and to be innovative in their thinking around managing risk in the workplace. New and emerging technologies are shaping our working environment.

“As a regulator we want to encourage industry to think about how technologies such as robotics and AI can be used to manage risk in the workplace, safeguarding workers both now and in the future world of work.”

Picture shows Chris Skidmore MP meeting the team at Bristol University.

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