This Little Robot Could Be a Faster, Cheaper Method of Detecting Pipeline Leaks

MIT's self-propelled robot gets up close and personal with pipes of all types.

A mockup of the robot. Image: Chatzigeorgiou/MIT

Leaky gas, water, and oil pipes cause a whole host of problems, from deadly explosions to steady pollution. The blast that killed eight people and razed an East Harlem block in March 2014 is still complicating the lives of residents living near the site, many of whom are still living without basic utilities.

Meanwhile, damaged water pipelines can waste an enormous amount of water in a municipal system without operators knowing there's a problem. The environmental devastation wreaked by broken oil and gas pipelines is obvious, and it's not at all comforting that some states are repairing these ruptures with trash bags and duct tape.

Clearly, an efficient method for detecting and repairing damaged pipelines is overdue. Engineers based out MIT's Mechatronics Research Laboratory have been developing a concept that might fit the bill.

The East Harlem pipeline explosion. Image: Adnan Islam

Normally leaks are detected by acoustic sensors above ground, but the MIT team and their partners at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals have designed a self-propelled robot that will be able scoot around inside the pipes.

PhD student Dimitrios Chatzigeorgiou has been leading the research on this device. "We are already doing tests in pipelines in our lab environment here at MIT," he told me over email. "Real field tests are scheduled for sometime between the coming 12-18 months."

The robotic scout would be designed to scurry along pipelines at speeds of up to three miles per hour. The apparatus is simple, consisting of a small robot that can either be carried along with a liquid current or self-propelled on wheels through gas pipes.

Mounted on the robot is a sensitive membrane, which forms a seal across the width of the pipeline. If it encountered any leaks, the membrane would be tugged in the direction of the rupture, allowing it to pinpoint exactly where a pipeline's weak spots are located, and how serious they are.

This new method could be a significant improvement over other pipeline diagnostics. The hypersensitive membrane would be able to detect leaks that are up to twenty times smaller than what can be picked up by a ground-level acoustic sensor. It can detect leaks that are only one or two millimeters wide.

And here's the prototype. Image: Chatzigeorgiou/MIT

According to Chatzigeorgiou, the robot could eventually be deployed to search pipelines indefinitely. This might reduce the number of unexpected explosions, such as the one in Harlem, and it would provide much better imagining of plastic pipes, which are more impervious to acoustic imaging than metal pipes.

The mobile robot also has the potential to be much less expensive than traditional detection technology. According to Rached Ben-Mansou, one of Chatzigeorgiou's colleagues at King Fahd University, it costs about $2,500 per year to monitor a kilometer of pipeline. “We’re hoping this system will be much more affordable,” he said in MIT's statement.

It's still early stages, but if this robot really does turn out to be faster, cheaper, and more precise than our current methods of leak detection, it could solve several public safety problems in one fell swoop. And considering that some areas have allowed their repair technology to devolve into makeshift duct tape band-aids, it's good to know that there's something better coming down the pipeline.