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You are here: Home News In Brief Drones to Take on Infrastructure Work

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English engineers at the University of Leeds recently won 4.2 million pound grant (about $6.5 million USD) from the U.K.’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to create a national infrastructure for “self-repairing cities,” where small robots can identify and repair everything from potholes to streetlights to utility pipes.

The team, led by civil engineer Phil Purnell and including researchers from University College London and the Universities of Birmingham and Southampton, is working on three drone designs. One set of robots will be responsible for “perch and repair,” meaning they will perch, like birds, on tall structures and make small repairs to things like streetlights. The “perceive and patch” robots will not only automatically inspect, diagnose, and repair potholes in the road, but will also prevent future ones from forming. And “fire and forget” drones will monitor and repair utility pipes as needed.

“Most of what we’re proposing is for the drones to do very simple and mundane tasks,” Purnell says. “When you look at major infrastructure failures—things like potholes or failures in pipe lines—they’re often caused by very small, millimeter-scale defects. And if those were caught early by an automated system, then the larger failures and inconveniences wouldn’t occur.”

As the researchers expected, not everyone is excited about the potential of drones. “If you look at the British press, some of the comments you can see are, ‘Thanks very much for taking our jobs,’ and that’s a valid point of view,” says Purnell. “We have a large workforce in the infrastructure-maintenance industry, and we should look at what will be the effect of work patterns, distribution of wealth and society, equality of access to the infrastructure. This is something we feel very strongly about.”

Purnell says his team will be ready to test the robots within the next year.

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You are here: Home News In Brief Drones to Take on Infrastructure Work