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.
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.
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+.