Year Review 2021

Keeping drinking water pipes in top shape with award-winning robot

SubMerge Autonomous Inspection Robot (AIR) wins Aquatech Innovation Award

A robot that autonomously moves through the drinking water network to ascertain its condition and that knows exactly what to do in problematic situations. That is the prospect of the Autonomous Inspection Robot (AIR), which received the annual innovation award during the opening ceremony of Aquatech Amsterdam 2021.

A Dutch consortium of seven drinking water companies, KWR and Demcon Robotic Systems, took the initiative for this promising robot for effective and cost-saving asset management. Under the name SubMerge, Vitens, Evides and Brabant Water submitted the robot for the Award.

Aquatech Innovation Award

In the coming decades, Dutch water companies must replace a substantial part of the 120,000 km of water pipes due to ageing and decreasing strength. In order to tackle this task in a cost-effective manner, it is very important to know the current condition of each pipe. For this purpose, an Autonomous Inspection Robot (AIR) is being developed that was recently awarded the Aquatech Innovation Award, a prestigious prize for the most innovative product, service or solution for the water sector. According to the jury report, AIR deserves the award because the robot can maneuver around corners, which is unique. Also the fact that the public and private sector are linked by the cooperation of technology companies and the water  sector in the development of this innovation gets high marks. As a result, the robot has been carefully thought out with multiple functionalities’, according to the jury.

Autonomous Inspection Robot

Over the past decades, research has led to the creation of statistical models that can be used to assess the probability of failure of certain drinking water pipes. Satellite images of soil movement also provide input for making such estimates. But what happens underground remains largely invisible. We rely on models with assumptions and estimates of the condition of pipes, not on measurement data that tells us the true condition of a pipe. An autonomous robot that ‘lives’ in the pipeline network, as it were, must bring about a change in this situation,” explains Peter van Thienen, senior researcher at KWR, in a podcast of De Waterwetenschappers (The Water Scientists) devoted especially to this topic. ‘Such a robot works independently 24/7, which makes it much cheaper per unit of pipe length inspected than existing techniques.’ The robot is our eyes and ears.

Test network as a robot obstacle course

An autonomously operating robot is equipped with various sensors that can determine the condition of pipes. The innovation is still under development; after creating a successful prototype, experiments are now being conducted with it in specially developed test networks. Van Thienen: ‘At KWR, we made a pipe network of more than 400 metres long with all kinds of bends, branches and loops, different diameters and materials. A sort of obstacle course for the robot to see how it copes with challenging practical situations.’

Data-rich asset management

Much research is still needed before the autonomous robots will actually move around in our drinking water pipes, says Van Thienen. ‘But the real work starts afterwards. Once the robots are up and running, an explosion of data will hit us. We will learn a great deal from this, for example, about the processes that cause the condition of the pipes to deteriorate. We will gain a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms. The data collected by the robots will allow us to iteratively improve the algorithms used to recognise this deterioration. The increased understanding of the processes also makes it easier to predict where we should send the robot. It is an iterative process, in which the identification of problem areas in pipes and the understanding of the ageing process go hand in hand.’

Curious about more background information on the Autonomous Inspection Robot? Listen here to the podcast ‘How do we keep our drinking water pipes in top shape?’, with KWR researcher Peter van Thienen talking (in Dutch). SubMerge is looking for a partner to further develop the robot and market it internationally. Read more at