Autonomous Inspection Robots game-changer for asset management

AIR submitted for 2021 InfraTech Innovation Award

A system of autonomously operating robots, which remain in the pipe network almost permanently, would significantly enhance knowledge of the condition of this infrastructure. The techniques currently available for this purpose do not meet the requirements. For this reason, over the last few years, a functional model of an Autonomous Inspection Robot (AIR) has been developed.

Given the great breakthrough this technology would represent, the concept has been submitted for the 2021 InfraTech Innovation Award. A good picture of the condition of the pipes would ensure that the right pipe is replaced at the right time, thereby saving costs, preventing failures and significantly reducing leakage losses. The InfraTech Innovation Award is a distinction aimed at stimulating innovative ideas in the construction, maintenance, renovation and sustainability of infrastructure. The award’s winner will be announced on 13 January 2021.

Functional model of autonomous inspection robot

For an effective asset management that ensures the optimal performance of the drinking water network a good picture of the condition of the pipes is needed. However, this is not possible with the techniques available today. To change this, KWR and Wetsus, within the framework of the Joint Research Programme of KWR and the water utilities, in 2015-2017 developed an initial prototype for an autonomously operating robot: Ariel. The robot’s further development into a functional model took place within a Dutch consortium, consisting of seven drinking water utilities (Brabant Water, Dunea, Evides, PWN, Vitens, WMD, WML), KWR and Demcon Robotic Systems.

AIR platform

The innovation consists of a platform of:

  • autonomously operating robots that remain in the pipe network 24/7, and are equipped with various sensors which, among other things, determine the condition of the pipes and the exact positioning (x, y, z coordinates).
  • infrastructure with base stations for up/downloading of route/inspection data and recharging of batteries, so that the robot can autonomously travel lengthy routes underground;
  • data ecosystem for the analysis of large volumes of inspection and sensor data.

Autonomous operation is ground-breaking and innovative

Within the context of the existing inspection techniques for drinking water pipes, an autonomous robot constitutes a highly-promising product innovation. Today’s inspection robots that are already being deployed around the world do not have this autonomy. This makes AIR a ground-breaking concept that offers the drinking water sector the opportunity of transforming network maintenance from ‘risk-based’ to ‘condition-based’ – because ‘to measure is to know’!

Game-changer attracts attention of drinking water sector

AIR’s Unique Selling Point is that the inspection costs per kilometre are reduced by a factor of 20 compared to existing robots. Moreover, the autonomous robot can be deployed 24/7, everywhere. Given these benefits, it is estimated that the top thousand water utilities in the world would be interested in implementing this game-changer. This means that the innovation can be scaled to numerous countries. The AIR platform can also be translated to other domains (such as wastewater, city heating, oil and gas) and to new sensor technology (such as for water quality). The functional model is currently being tested in practice, and its further development is taking place under the banner of SubMerge b.v., which was established for this purpose.

InfraTech Innovation Award

The AIR concept has been submitted for the InfraTech Innovation Award, which will be presented to the winner on 13 January 2021.