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CO2 Emissions Fibrwrap Construction, FYFE Company and the University of Californai will develop robots to repair water mains.

Published on December 20th, 2009 | by Tina Casey

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Robot Corps to Repair Nation's Water Mains



Fibrwrap Construction, FYFE Company and the University of Californai will develop robots to repair water mains.With over two million miles of aging water mains to maintain, the U.S. is on the brink of a water supply precipice.  A modest project seeded with just a few thousand dollars could go a long way to resolving the crisis, by developing robotic water main repair devices that can work much faster than human crews.

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The real kicker is the ability of small robotic devices to reach inside small pipes as well as the larger human-sized water mains.  Water supply robots are already in use for inspection purposes.  It’s a more sustainable approach that would practically eliminate the need to excavate thousands of miles of water mains for repair or replacement.  In turn, that would make a significant dent in carbon emissions from earth-moving machines and other utility streetwork.

Water Mains and Carbon Fiber

The seed money comes from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Technology Innovation Program for small businesses.  It was awarded to a partnership spearheaded by carbon fiber industry leaders Fibrwrap Construction, Inc. and FYFE Company, along with robotics experts at the University of California.  The companies already use proprietary coatings of carbon fiber, polymers, glass, and other materials that can be bonded to the interior of a water main, but to date the work has been limited to pipes of 36 diameters or more.

Water Mains and Robots

Fibrwrap estimates that a robotic device could lay its carbon fiber material 11 times faster than a human crew, but the real challenge is dealing with the flaws, unusual shapes and uneven surfaces typical of older water mains and pipes.   The team will focus on developing sensors that can monitor the contact pressure between the application device and the interior of the water main, and synchronize that with the motion of the robot.

The Limits of Robotic Water Main Repair

Robotic repair could go a long way toward boosting conservation in public water supply systems, which has lagged far behind the agricultural and energy generating sectors.  But robots will be helpless when it comes to fighting off another critical problem for the U.S. water supply, the emergence and spread of destructive mining and drilling practices that could contaminate underground aquifers as well as rivers and streams.

Image: Robot by TheAlieness GiselaGiardino23 via parl on flickr.com.

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About the Author

Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



  • Sam

    Let’s make sure this technology even works before we start digging…. Robots and processes need to be first proven to work in pipe-sizes as small as 1-4″ and as big as 12″ to 36″… and even then a flawed fiber-lined-and-sealed pipe relining process is just as useless as an aging pipe…. Let’s do feasibility and aging tests first , while continuing the dig-and-replace first….

    Note also that cities will outsource/sell certain assets if faced with bankruptcy… a nasty but capitalistic must-do if unions remain stuck in their ways….

  • Sam

    Let’s make sure this technology even works before we start digging…. Robots and processes need to be first proven to work in pipe-sizes as small as 1-4″ and as big as 12″ to 36″… and even then a flawed fiber-lined-and-sealed pipe relining process is just as useless as an aging pipe…. Let’s do feasibility and aging tests first , while continuing the dig-and-replace first….

    Note also that cities will outsource/sell certain assets if faced with bankruptcy… a nasty but capitalistic must-do if unions remain stuck in their ways….

  • Carl

    You know, as dispiriting as Jay’s comment is I have to agree: union labor has resisted almost every technology that results in efficiency gains, especially when that technology is automated. Just look at the Longshoremen dragging their heels for decades while foreign ports took massive amounts of business away from US ports.

    Perhaps the answer is to educate the union laborers to operate and maintain the equipment purchased by the cities and counties…at least they could hope for better paying technical jobs that way even if there are fewer of them left to do the actual work.

  • Carl

    You know, as dispiriting as Jay’s comment is I have to agree: union labor has resisted almost every technology that results in efficiency gains, especially when that technology is automated. Just look at the Longshoremen dragging their heels for decades while foreign ports took massive amounts of business away from US ports.

    Perhaps the answer is to educate the union laborers to operate and maintain the equipment purchased by the cities and counties…at least they could hope for better paying technical jobs that way even if there are fewer of them left to do the actual work.

  • Jay

    This will never work. You know why? Most water main repairs will need to be done in cities. Almost all cities have unionized work forces, especially in areas like sewer and water pipe maintenance. If you think the unions will allow robots to fix pipe that would normally require a team of guys to dig up, remove, replace, and re-cover, you’re dreaming. They’d rather bankrupt the city and have the citizens die of thirst than risk one union job to a robotic workforce that would eventually do 90% of what union members are paid to do for nothing more than initial investment and regular repairs.

  • Jay

    This will never work. You know why? Most water main repairs will need to be done in cities. Almost all cities have unionized work forces, especially in areas like sewer and water pipe maintenance. If you think the unions will allow robots to fix pipe that would normally require a team of guys to dig up, remove, replace, and re-cover, you’re dreaming. They’d rather bankrupt the city and have the citizens die of thirst than risk one union job to a robotic workforce that would eventually do 90% of what union members are paid to do for nothing more than initial investment and regular repairs.

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