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California university develops pipe-assessing robot

Burst water mains. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Chianti
Burst water mains. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Chianti

PipeFish is designed to log the condition of pipe interiors and find damage before it becomes an issue.

The University of Southern California’s Polymorphic Robotics Lab, led by director Wei-Min Shen, made the robot to be as undisruptive as possible, being inserted via fire hydrants instead of having to dig-out the pipes and manually inspecting them or using externally-applied devices. The robot uses video and other sensors aimed at detecting “flow rate, gas space, illegally dumped chemicals and flammable materials” to capture data while logging its position.

Using the robot, there is no need to stem water supply during deployment as it travels passively with the flow, and the robot’s data allows problem pipes to be efficiently identified and replaced.

In a statement from the university, Ray Hardjadinata, associate engineer with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, said: “The ability to perform accurate and efficient condition assessments on buried pipes will tremendously help Los Angeles and other cities with aging infrastructures”.

Parts of Los Angeles’ water infrastructure is over 60 years old, determining which pipes need replacing in this aging network is a constant effort.

Talking about the future of the project, Shen said: “The plan is to eventually send PipeFish through every major water pipe in L.A. to identify risk and help officials prioritise which pipes need to be repaired or replaced first.”


Corrected 17/01/2018: The headline mistakenly stated the the robot detected leaks.

Burst water mains. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Chianti