Are Self-Repairing Cities the Way of the Future?

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Thursday, January 14th, 2016
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Back in 2013, NSW Transport Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) faced a significant challenge.

Prior to repainting the entire Sydney Harbour Bridge, the landmark involving 53,000 tonnes of steel and a surface area equivalent to 60 sports pitches had to be cleaned – a task involving many dangerous and awkward jobs in confined and hard to reach places.

In came Rosey and Sandy – robots developed by the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) and programmed to use high-pressure grit blasters to strip away old paint from the bridge’s surface as well as from various nooks and crannies. Featuring two-metre long mechanical arms, half a dozen joints for dexterity and sensors and cameras to navigate unfamiliar terrain, the robots were able to combine pictures and three-dimensional data into a 3D structure type of map from which to work out the best way to perform the job. They are now part of the bridge’s permanent maintenance crew.

But UTS and RMS are going further. CROC, an inchworm-like robot that has two magnetic feet and a dexterous body is able to climb up structures, autonomously explore and inspect complicated environments and transmit real-time images back to operators stationed in remote locations. The robot is capable, UTS says, of inspecting steel bridges, ship hulls, transmission towers, power plants and offshore structures.

These machines are part of a broader transformation through which many believe robots, drones, sensors and the ‘internet of things’ will combine to revolutionise the way infrastructure is not only built but also monitored and maintained. In many cases, these developments will negate the need to send workers into dirty and dangerous environments.

Perhaps the biggest push in this area is coming from the city of Leeds in the United Kingdom, which is undertaking an ambitious program to become the first city in the world to achieve zero disruption from road or sewerage works. The cornerstone of this effort revolves around a newly announced £4.2 billion program through which researchers from the University of Leeds are working with Leeds City Council and the UK Collaboration for Research in Infrastructure and Cities to design and develop three distinct types of robots which will be able to perch like birds on street lights and other structures at heights and perform repair tasks; autonomously inspect, diagnose, repair and prevent potholes in roads; and live and operate indefinitely in sewer pipes while performing inspection, maintenance, repair, metering and reporting tasks.

As the Leeds program is in its early stages, the mechanics of how the robots under its program will work remains to be seen. One possibility with the road-repair machines, Sydney-based futurist and founder of telecommunications analytics outfit Market Clarity Shara Evans says, would be to have drones fly over and inspect the condition of the road. Upon the discovery of a potential problem, a repair robot would then be dispatched with the materials ready to perform the necessary repair work.

Beyond the examples above, Evans says there could be other potential applications in the years to come. Under one scenario, a 3D printer mounted on a robot could be programmed to print out different materials which were needed for a repair. Early experimental work is also going on with regard to robots which can manufacture materials which can change shape when triggered by external stimuli such as coming into contact with water or rising or falling air temperatures.

Telstra chief scientist Hugh Bradlow says factors such as the current cost of robots means full-scale adoption of this kind of thing is at least a decade and probably 25 to 35 years away, but notes that there are currently ‘green shoots’ of action in this space.

“If you think about Telstra’s workforce, we have roughly 4,000 guys that go up and repair lines and things like that and they have to do some pretty unpleasant things like crawl under short and very narrow house spaces with things like funnel web spiders and the like,” Bradlow told a Property Council of Australia conference in Melbourne recently, when asked about the notion of self-repairing cities.

“It’s not something that you actually want to do. Now it won’t be long before we are contemplating things like (using) robots to do things like string a wire under a house. I think we will see a steady progression on things like that, but it really won’t take place until I think at least a decade out.”

In terms of barriers to be overcome, Evans says one area of challenge revolves around technical considerations, the specific nature of which will vary according to the particular application in question. In the example of the robots that live in sewers, these could include limitations associated with battery power and battery life along with challenges in communication in spaces which are tightly confined and subject to interference. One potential solution to the battery issue would be to send special ‘recharging’ robots into pipes and sewers in order to recharge the batteries of the robots which were stationed permanently in the areas concerned, she said. Communication issues could potentially be resolved using picocells or other small cell stations along the pipe, she suggested.

Bigger still are broader issues in terms of things such as legalities, societal values and security. In the case of flying robots or drones, for example, guidelines would have to be developed in areas such as noise, privacy and how they will operate in air space with questions like speed limits, right of way compared with other drones or airborne objects and whether or not they will be required to have black boxes. Legal questions such as who should be liable where a drone is involved in an accident or collision will need to be considered.

Finally, there is the question of security and what could happen where a robot or drone was hacked or knocked off-course in some kind of targeted attack. Such conundrums involve going beyond technology and ask deeper questions about legal and social values, she says.

Evans says scepticism should be tempered and that the phenomenon of self-repairing cities must be taken seriously. While acknowledging experimentation in the concept of robots using 3D printers to fashion different materials and materials which could change shape was in its infancy, she says the potential to leverage this area along with robots that build things cannot be understated.

“If we are talking about the potential of using a robot to do repairs, I would say, well that’s not pie in the sky,” Evans said. “We have robots doing buildings right now, why would it be pie in the sky for a similar type of robot to effect a repair rather than doing construction in the first instance?”

“…If you’ve got all these materials that can be used to fashion all kinds of things on the fly and you’ve got robots that are already doing construction, what makes the integration of these kinds of technologies impossible?

“The answer is nothing.”

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