Researchers developing drones to autonomously repair the cities of the future

A new project led by the University of Leeds aims to deploy an army of maintenance robots to repair things like potholes and busted street lamps(Credit: Shutterstock)

A lot of time and effort goes into keeping our cities in working order. Potholes need filling, power lines need maintaining and street light globes need replacing when blown. But a new initiative led by the University of Leeds could soon see these labor-intensive tasks taken care of by an army of drones that keep a watchful eye over our streets, tending to cracks in our urban environment the moment they begin to appear.

The £4.2 million (US$6.4 million) research project carries the overarching aim of ushering in "self-repairing cities." That is, the goal is to develop a team of small robots that detect problems with infrastructure as soon as the pop up, to prevent them developing into inconvenient roadworks or other larger repair projects.

"We want to make Leeds the first city in the world to have zero disruption from street works," says Professor Phil Purnell, from the university's School of Civil Engineering. "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.”

The research is broken down into three areas, each pertaining to a specific kind of machine to perform a specific kind of task. Dubbed "perch and repair," the first arm aims to develop drones that can perch on structures just as birds do, swooping in to repair things like busted street lights.

Meanwhile, "perceive and patch" will involve the development of drones that keep watch over the city streets, autonomously detecting and repairing potholes in roads, whereas "fire and forget" is looking to develop robots that can function independently and indefinitely inside live utility pipes, carrying out inspections, repairs, metering and reporting tasks.

"The critical part of this project is being proactive rather than reactive,” said Dr Raul Fuentes, from the university's School of Civil Engineering. "This is crucial to ensuring we have sustainable and resilient infrastructure. We will target our interventions so that they are invisible to the human eye, before they become a real problem."

Having only just announced the project, a lot of questions remain as to how exactly drone technology can be advanced so the machines can safely tackle these problems in densely populated areas. Robotics researchers at ETH Zürich's institute for Dynamic Systems and Control have made important strides forward when it comes to using drones in construction, last month demonstrating a walkable rope bridge built autonomously by flying robots.

Europe's Aerial Robotics Cooperative Assembly System (ARCAS) project, a consortium of robotics professors from around the continent, is looking at how drones can fly in cooperation to share the the weight of heavy building materials, overcoming one of the most pressing limitations of the technology: minimal payload capacity.

How the University of Leeds team approaches these problems will be interesting to see, with the research also set to explore the social, environmental, political and economic effects of a robotic workforce on the city. According to City Lab, Purnell claims the robots will be ready for testing next year.

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