According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), approximately six billion gallons of clean water are lost per day in the United States due to leaky pipes. And it goes beyond just the lost resources, as these leaks can create more expensive problems, like sinkholes in roads or structural damage to homes and buildings.
This is where the 2018 winner of the James Dyson Award could play a key role. Created by MIT doctoral graduate You Wu, a new, inexpensive, soft rubber robot called Lighthouse could be used to proactively travel through water pipes in search of leaks.
Resembling an oversized badminton birdie, the end or skirt of the device is embedded with tactile sensors which fill the diameter of the pipe. When the robot passes a leak in a pressurized water pipe, these tactile sensors are pulled by the suction generated by the escaping water. This movement allows for creating a map of the leaks in the pipe.
The soft, flexible nature of the robot allows for maneuvering around junctions and elbows. After it’s retrieved from the system, the location of the leaks can be wirelessly downloaded and placed on a Google map. Wu feels that the robot can help municipalities control costs by eliminating unnecessary digging and shutting down of water lines. It also offers a solution to noisier areas or systems with plastic tubing where acoustic leak detection technologies are not as accurate.
Wu’s inspiration for Lighthouse reportedly came from stepping on his girlfriend’s dress at a party. He saw a connection to the design of her outfit and the way the sensors could be embedded into the robot. Must have been a wild party.