By Jay Bennett
In mid-October, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), a non-departmental government body, granted the University of Leeds $6.4 million to develop small robots that are capable of identifying and repairing damaged street lights and utility pipes as well as filling potholes. The idea is to create a repair system that won’t require the use of large machinery that disrupts traffic and city operations.
Three different types of repair drones are planned. ”Perch and Repair” drones would perch “like birds” on elevated structures to perform maintenance on things like street lights and power line transformers. “Perceive and Patch” drones would autonomously scan the streets for damage and fill potholes. And “Fire and Forget” drones would be deployed inside utility pipes to report damage and perform repairs.
Of course, the grant money is for research to develop these technologies, and how exactly the drones will carry out these maintenance tasks is for the moment unclear. Significant steps have been taken in past years to use drones in construction projects. The technology for aerial mapping and surveying is already well developed, so identifying areas that need maintenance shouldn’t be a problem.
A bigger issue is overcoming the payload limitations of drones. For a drone to fix a pothole, it must be able to transport heavy construction materials such as cement or asphalt. While there are efforts to create drones that can carry more weight without being too cumbersome and clumsy themselves, perhaps the more realistic solution is to use multiple drones flying in formation to carry heavy payloads, as Gizmag reported in March.
The Aerial Robotics Cooperative Assembly System is working on just that—developing a “cooperative free-flying robot system for assembly and structure construction.” In a 2012 TED Talk, Dr Vijay Kumar of the University of Pennsylvania robotics lab demonstrated that small drones can operate in tight formations with centimeter precision. And, of course, companies like Amazon are constantly working to develop drones that can deliver packages to customers.
Given these recent advancements, the University of Leeds research team feels it has cause to be optimistic.
“We can support infrastructure which can be entirely maintained by robots and make the disruption caused by the constant digging up the road in our cities a thing of the past,” says research lead Phil Purnell, a professor in the Leeds School of Civil Engineering.
Perhaps traffic congestion and detours due to construction repairs will be nothing more than a memory in the cities of the future, and little robots will constantly shadow our streets, swopping in to fix something as soon as we break it.
Information from www.popularmechanics.com