The UK government is investing in a project to develop tiny robots that would make repairs on underground pipes, according to The Telegraph. The robots would fly, swim, and crawl through water, gas, and sewage pipes, allowing them to be fixed or cleared without the need to dig up and block roads.

In the UK, 1.5 million road work projects disrupt traffic each year. The Government estimates this disruption costs as much as £5 billion each year in delays and lost business.

“It is like keyhole surgery for the ground, so instead of cutting up the whole road, send a small robot down a pipe and conduct repairs and inspections,” said University of Sheffield professor Kirill Horoshenkov.

Horoshenkov, an expert in acoustics and sound engineering, will help develop a sonar system to help the robots navigate through dark pipes. Sonar, used by some bats to navigate dark environments, sends sound pulses to bounce off objects, and then measures how long it takes the signal to return. Submarines use sonar to detect target ships.

Similar robots could even safely work on dangerous sites such as decommissioned nuclear plants, and hard-to-reach spots such as offshore windfarms or oil and gas pressure vessels. Horoshenkov says the robots could also find applications in areas such as aerospace and medicine.

Two types of robots would be used for pipe repair. First, a smaller, fully autonomous “inspection bot” would locate the problem. Then, a somewhat larger and likely remote-controlled “worker bot” would perform the maintenance, carrying additional power and materials such as cement mix and adhesives for repairs. It could even include a high-powered jet to clear sediment build-up.

The robots are expected to be operational and available in about five years, and other designs could be included during that time. Researchers at the Universities of Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds, and Sheffield are working on the project.

“While for now we can only dream of a world without roadworks disrupting our lives, these pipe-repairing robots herald the start of technology that could make that dream a reality in the future,” said Science Minister Chris Skidmore, who announced a total investment of £26.6 million in 15 projects involving micro-robots.

“From deploying robots in our pipe network, to cutting down traffic delays, to using robots in workplaces to keep people safer, this new technology could change the world we live in for the better. Experts in our top UK universities across the country are well equipped to develop this innovative new technology.”

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