Self repairing city: Robots and drones made in Leeds to repair potholes and street lights

Alfonso Lopez pictured working on a robot in 2013, at the Mechanical Engineering department at Leeds University. The new drones are yet to be developed. Picture by Simon Hulme.

Alfonso Lopez pictured working on a robot in 2013, at the Mechanical Engineering department at Leeds University. The new drones are yet to be developed. Picture by Simon Hulme.

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SCIENTISTS at Leeds University are to create new robots and drones to help fix street lights and potholes as part of an ambitious plan to create “self-repairing cities.”

Academics are leading a pioneering £4.2m national research project to develop small robots which can identify problems with utility pipes, street lights and roads and fix them.

The idea is to create a “self repairing city” where working robots would cause minimal environmental impact and disruption to the public.

After being thoroughly tested the robots will be trialled “in a safe environment” on the streets of Leeds.

The researchers will initially develop new robot designs and technologies in three areas:

 “Perch and Repair” – research to develop drones that can perch, like birds, on structures at height and perform repair tasks, such as repairing street lights.

The new drones have not yet been developed but Leeds University is already at the cutting edge of robotics research. Graham Brown is pictured here with 'Lucy' the Robot at the university's Mechanical Engineering Department. Picture by Simon Hulme

The new drones have not yet been developed but Leeds University is already at the cutting edge of robotics research. Graham Brown is pictured here with 'Lucy' the Robot at the university's Mechanical Engineering Department. Picture by Simon Hulme

 “Perceive and Patch” - research to develop drones able to autonomously inspect, diagnose, repair and prevent potholes in roads;

 “Fire and forget” – research to develop robots which will operate indefinitely within live utility pipes performing inspection, repair, metering and reporting tasks.

Professor Phil Purnell, from the School of Civil Engineering, is leading the research team.

He said: “We want to make Leeds the first city in the world to have zero disruption from street works.

“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.”

Dr Rob Richardson, director of the National Facility for Innovative Robotic Systems at the university added: “Detecting faults and weaknesses early and then quickly performing smart repairs is the key.

“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.

“The project, ‘Balancing the impact of City Infrastructure Engineering on Natural systems using Robots’, will also track the social, environmental, political and economic impact of these new technologies in the city.”

Announcing the funding during a visit to Cambridge University, Minister Jo Johnson said: “As a one nation Government we are investing in world-class science and engineering across our country. We want the UK to be the best place in Europe to innovate and this £4.2 million investment will bring together researchers to address some of the most pressing engineering challenges we face.

“From ground-breaking work with robotics to advanced air-flow simulators, this investment will help tackle our aging water infrastructure and air pollution in cities to improve the lives of millions of people around the world.”

The team will work with Leeds City Council and the UK Collaboration for Research in Infrastructure and Cities to ensure that the robots are thoroughly tested before being trialled “in a safe and responsible manner in Leeds”.

Leader of Leeds City Council Coun Judith Blake said:

“We are delighted to be working with the University of Leeds on this intriguing and groundbreaking project.

“We are very keen to explore new innovations and use the latest technologies to improve how the city runs through our Smart Cities programme, and this idea of turning science fiction into fact will be fascinating to watch. “We look forward to following its development with interest as part of a relationship between the council and the university that continues to go from strength to strength.”