A leak in a city’s water pipes can go quickly from drip to disaster, both in lost resources and in accompanying damage. A device to address this challenge, with additional applications for gas and sewage lines, is being commercialized by the newly founded PipeGuard Robotics. The soft robot was developed in the lab of mechanical engineering professor Kamal Youcef-Toumi SM ’81, ScD ’85 and has been field tested in the US, UK, and Saudi Arabia. PipeGuard’s founders—You Wu SM ’14, PhD ’18, Jonathan Miller SM ’18, and Daniel Gomez MBA ’18—aspire for their invention not only to detect leaks but, eventually, to be able to repair some of them on the spot. In the meantime, here are a few key features that allow it to discover and assess leaks before major repairs are necessary.
1 Nicknamed “Lighthouse” and “Daisy,” these rubbery robots are all about flexibility.
Designed in two different sizes for use in pressurized pipes, they are propelled by water flow, can squeeze past small blockages, and are bendy enough to navigate sharp turns. The team is also developing a self-propelled version.
2 The robots’ fin-like, tactile sensors can detect leaks as small as 1 gallon per minute.
The fins fill the diameter of the pipe and are stretched whenever they encounter the suction force of escaping water. Because obstacles such as dirt in the pipes compress the robots’ housing as well as stretching the fins, they can differentiate between leaks and blockages.
3 Lighthouse and Daisy can be used without any digging or interruption in water service.
An operator can use a robot launcher to insert the robot into a T-junction or fire hydrant, then may retract it via tether or recapture it at a downstream location. A cloud-based analytics platform provides the operator with a map of leaks, including leak size and repair recommendations.