Led by civil & environmental engineering professor Maria Feng, the team is working to build a prototype robot that could repair and retrofit aging water pipes by applying a tough reinforcement material around their interiors, instead of excavating the pipes to replace them.
The engineers are working with Fibrwrap Construction, which specializes in structural renovation through trenchless application of composites, and Fyfe Company, which specializes in fiber-reinforced polymers for civil infrastructure rehabilitation.
Currently, the way to fix an aging or broken pipe is a bit, well, low-tech: construction crews dig trenches to find damaged pipe segments, then patch them on the spot or dig them out entirely for replacement -- plenty disruptive in a crowded metropolis.
This isn't the first time robots have been used to inspect pipes, but it's the first time they'll be able to fix them, by applying a carbon-fiber coating to the pipes' interior walls.
The researchers are working on giving the robot an advanced sensor system that can gauge contact pressure against the pipe wall and trigger the application process. In 2008, team member Masanobu Shinozuka -- a world-renowned expert in structural engineering -- won a National Institute of Standards & Technology Technology Innovation Program award to develop the technology.
"This robot needs to be intelligent," said Feng in a statement, herself internationally known for her invention of sensors that continually monitor the soundness of 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."
The engineers anticipate that the robots will be able to lay carbon-fiber coating 11 times faster than human crews.
According to an American Society of Civil Engineers report (.pdf), an average of six billion gallons of potable water is lost every day in the U.S. because of leaky pipes.
At commercial scale, the engineers' robotic system could save the U.S. economy some $245 billion -- plus give the nation a leg up in the race for water infrastructure technology.