There’s a Robot in Your Pipes… And it’s Wearing a Skirt

Nov. 8, 2018

Sometimes great innovations are inspired by quotidian life. Such is the case with a revolutionary leak-detecting robot.

Mechanical engineer You Wu began developing leak detection solutions when he joined the MIT Mechatronics Research Lab and was charged with adapting a colleague’s gas leak detection device for water pipes.

The original model, a self-propelled robot, was able to detect millimeter-scale gas leaks but faltered in water-borne applications. Noise interference from underwater turbulence prevented the device from accurately identifying leaks. Wu decided that it was time to rethink the sensor design and take a different approach.

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As it turned out, life provided the inspiration for the next iteration. While hosting a party in 2016, Wu accidentally stepped on the hem of his girlfriend’s dress. He realized from her reaction that a skirt would make an effective sensor design.  So he went back to the lab to make further improvements, replacing the robot’s sensing drum with a sensing skirt.

“You step on someone’s skirt, and they know,” he told Fatima Husain in the MIT Tech Review. He redesigned the robot as Daisy, a colorful, self-propelled rubber leak detector with a sensor-filled skirt.  

The robot is designed to enter water distribution systems and travel through pipelines, carried by water flow. With its skirt skimming the interior of the pipe, the device is able to carefully inspect water systems—noting the shape of the leak and its magnitude—without disrupting service. As it travels, it also data maps the water network. Wu is scaling up his leak-detecting robot design today into a commercial product called Lighthouse.

“Current water-leak detection technology can only tell you about leaks that grow to a certain size—only leaks once they are big,” Wu explains. “That’s not good enough. Leaks grow from tiny to big. We want to sense them before they grow into big ones, so you can save water and also protect infrastructure.”

What are your impressions? Do you see robots as a future solution for pipe inspection and leak detection?
About the Author

Laura Sanchez

Laura Sanchez is the editor of Distributed Energy and Water Efficiency magazines.