In an effort to move towards “self-repairing cities” in the United Kingdom, the University of Leeds has been awarded a grant of $6.4 million to head a research project that aims to use small robots to become part of the national infrastructure. The idea is to create small robots and drones that have the ability to travel through cities in order to detect weak infrastructure and make repairs. These robots will not interfere with people and will hopefully repair detected problems before anything goes wrong.
The grant is part of a nationwide initiative to explore “how new ways of using robotics and autonomous systems can restore the balance between engineered and natural systems in the cities of the future.” While the idea sounds amazing, critics warn that people should not get their hopes up too high. The press release about the project did not list too many specific examples and there is a general skepticism that these technologies can actually be created in our lifetime.
The press release did give some details about the areas the research will focus on. Specifically, “the researchers will initially develop new robot designs and technologies in three areas;” “Perch and Repair;” “Perceive and Patch” and; “Fire and Forget.”
The “Perch and Repair” area consists of creating flying drones that can zip above the city and repair things high up that need fixing. For example, if someone reported that a street light was out (or if the drone detected the problem itself), the drone would perch on the streetlight and replace the bulb.
The “Perceive and Patch” concept consists of developing small drones to self-inspect, diagnose, fix and prevent potholes in the city’s roads. This would require the machines to fly at low altitude without running into people or cars and analyze roads. Another option would be to have the drones fly at higher altitudes and have some sort of sensor system that could detect potholes from a greater distance. The machines would then need to carry the necessary equipment to repair the cracks and holes. Seems very ambitious.
The “Fire and Forget” initiative includes developing robots that will “live” within utility pipes in order to inspect, repair, meter and report usage. This seems more realistic as deployable systems already perform some inspection, metering and reporting.
It remains to be seen whether these lofty ambitions will ever be realized. But, the fact that countries are awarding large grants to researchers to develop this technology means that people believe in the possibility.