New robotic device to fix pipe leaks from inside

Here’s a new robot that can inspect water or gas pipes from the inside — no matter what the pipes are made of — and find leaks long before they become catastrophic, say researchers.

The team from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has developed a new robotic system that could provide a fast, inexpensive solution to finding even tiny leaks.

The system uses a small, rubbery robotic device that can be inserted into the water system through any fire hydrant.

It then moves passively with the flow, logging its position as it goes. It detects even small variations in pressure by sensing the pull at the edges of its soft rubber skirt, which fills the diameter of the pipe, the research said.

It is then retrieved using a net through another hydrant and its data is uploaded. No digging is required, and there is no need for any interruption of the water service.

The tests, in pipes with many bends, T-joints and connections, involved creating an artificial leak for the robot to find.

The robot did successfully, distinguishing the characteristics of the leak from false alarms caused by pressure variations or changes in pipe size, roughness or orientation.

“We put the robot in from one joint and took it out from the other. We tried it 14 times over three days and it completed the inspection every time,” said You Wu, a graduate student at MIT.

“It found a leak that was about one gallon per minute, which is one-tenth the minimum size that conventional detection methods can find on average and a third as large as those systems can find under even the best of conditions,” Wu added.

The system can also be used for other kinds of pipe distribution systems, such as those for natural gas, the researchers mentioned.