Municipal service robots

In the next 15 years, Canada will spend $12 billion to upgrade water main systems. A UBC professor is building a pipe inspection robot that will save money by entering subterranean waterways to find the weak spots.

UBC robotics professor Homayoun Najjaran is working on a robot that has the ability to travel through water mains and sewer pipes, identify defects and send back information that can be used by municipal engineers to determine how and where money should be invested in repair and renewal of piping infrastructure.

The project is a collaborative effort with fellow UBC engineering professors Solomon Tesfamariam and Rehan Sadiq, as well as a company called Inuktun in Nanaimo, B.C. The robot could save municipalities millions of dollars by helping them determine which infrastructure systems are in the most critical condition, and which are highest priority for costly upgrades.

“It is estimated that Canada will need to spend $12 billion in the next 15 years to upgrade water main systems,” says Najjaran, who works at UBC’s Okanagan campus.  “Only about 0.5 per cent of those systems are replaced annually, which means the life expectancy of a piping system is 200 years. With limited repair and renewal resources, you can see why it is important for municipalities to know what pipes are priority upgrades.”

Najjaran adds that it’s not just a matter of replacing the older pipes first. Environmental factors  contribute to deterioration, meaning some 100-year-old pipes could be fine, while much newer pipes could have serious defects.

The piping inspection robots are one example of Najjaran’s work, which focuses on robotics and automation. He works with industry and academia to build robots with autonomous capabilities to address real-world problems. This is the notion of “service robots.”

“If you have an operational system, and you would then like it to operate with less human intervention, you probably have an automation problem,” explains Najjaran. “What we do in our lab is make machines and robots smarter by adding sensors like cameras, rangefinders, and haptic sensors, so they can relate to and interact with the environment they are working in.

“Imagine you would like to inspect a pipe, a bridge, or even the surface of the Mars — somewhere where you have limited or no access,” he says. “We will build an autonomous robot to travel through the environment by itself, do inspection or repair, and communicate a wealth of useful information back to you.”

Collaboration is a key factor in Najjaran’s work. He continuously forms new partnerships with colleagues, industry, and businesses. His team consists of eight graduate students and four to six undergrads.

“The pipe inspection robot is one example of a number of automation projects and partnerships currently underway,” he says. “I’m also working on a project in partnership with Accuas Inc., a company based in Salmon Arm, BC, to automate the take-off and landing capabilities of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, which are used to provide geographical information.”