In 2013, American taxpayers spent $91 billion on roads with a huge piece of the pie allocated to labor-intensive repair of bad roads.
Now, fast-forward to the often-imagined “City of the Future.” Instead of massive, honking, smog-belching traffic delays ringed around stacks of safety cones and orange-clad workers, picture a small swarm of drones – watch the flock fly over our streets, detecting pavement structural problems and flitting down to quickly repair them before they become a problem.
If engineers at the University of Leeds have their way, such a scenario could leap off the screens of every metro sci-fi film you’ve ever seen and into an actual reality within a “self-repairing” city.
The university recently garnered a $6.5 million grant from the British Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to design the infrastructure for a city swarming with drones and repair robots that could fix roadways, utility pipes and streetlights.
Led by professor Phil Purnell, from the School of Civil Engineering, the project will test repair drone swarms within a year in the city of Leeds.
“We want to make Leeds the first city in the world to have zero disruption from street works,” Purnell said in a university press release.
“We can support infrastructure which can be entirely maintained by robots and make the disruption caused by the constant digging up the road in our cities a thing of the past,” he added.
The Leeds project will revolve around three drone designs. “Perceive and Patch” drones will autonomously inspect, diagnose, repair and prevent potholes in roads while “Perch and Repair” UAVs will “perch, like birds, on structures at height and perform repair tasks, such as repairing street lights.”
Finally (and perhaps the most sci-fi in concept), “Fire and Forget” robots will operate “indefinitely within live utility pipes” performing inspection, repair, metering and reporting tasks (and yes, Peter Jackson is surely working on a horror screenplay wherein drones invade our toilets from below).
“Detecting faults and weaknesses early and then quickly performing smart repairs is the key,” Rob Richardson, director of the university’s National Facility for Innovative Robotic Systems.
“Our robots will undertake precision repairs and avoid the need for large construction vehicles in the heart of our cities. We will use the unique capabilities of our robotic facility to make new, more capable robots.”