Autonomous robots, artificial intelligence find water leaks

Dec. 3, 2018
Researchers, companies solve leak problems with new technologies.

There are a handful of reasons that leak detection is important, especially in large-scale environments like municipal water systems. Luckily, companies and researchers are using new technologies to better find leaks in these systems.

For example, researchers at the University of Waterloo, in collaboration with industry partners, has been working to reduce costly water losses in municipal water systems by using sensors and artificial intelligence (AI) technology. The combined technology has the ability to detect even small leaks in water pipes, the researchers say.

Using sophisticated signal processing techniques and AI software, the system identifies the sites of leaks carried via sound in water pipes. The acoustic signatures are recorded by hydrophone sensors, which can be easily and inexpensively installed in existing fire hydrants without excavation or taking them out of service, they say.

The sensor technology works by pre-processing acoustic data using advanced signal processing techniques to highlight components associated with leaks, which makes it possible for machine learning algorithms to identify leaks by distinguishing their signs from other sources of noise in a water distribution system.

“This would allow cities to use their resources for maintenance and repairs much more effectively,” lead researcher Roya Cody, a civil engineering PhD candidate at Waterloo, said in a statement. “They could be more proactive as opposed to reactive.”

Major problems like burst pipes can be identified by pressure changes, volume fluctuations or water bubbling to the surface, but small leaks can go undetected for years, the researchers say.

“By catching small leaks early, we can prevent costly, destructive bursts later on,” Cody said.

The researchers are now conducting field tests with the hydrant sensors after reliably detecting leaks as small as 17 liters a minute in the lab. They’re also working on ways to pinpoint the location of leaks.

Another effort comes with an eye on water conservation. Start-up company WatchTower Robotics created a leak-detecting robot and is working with utilities to help find leaks before they become major problems.

WatchTower’s robots are soft sided, autonomous and the size of a softball, explains a recent article on ASME.org titled “This robot’s mission is to solve the world’s water crisis,” and written by Tim Sprinkle. The robot is inserted into a water pipe and is carried through the pipe by the force of the flow.

The robot features a series of “wings” on all sides that have sensors attached. While traveling through the pipe, the wings pull in the direction of a leak as a result of the force of the water exiting the pipe. A geosensor then tags and stores the location data within a few feet.

“So, six years of development led to the product we have today, which is able to find leaks in all pipe materials, looking for leaks the same way you’d feel the suction on the end of a vacuum cleaner,” WatchTower’s product strategy lead Tyler Mantel said in the article.

The company already sees potential for the product’s use in gas lines and other areas where liquid flows through a pipe.

Autonomous robots and artificial intelligence aren’t the top solutions that come to mind when you’re trying to find a leak, but they certainly might be soon.

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