Imagine riding a bike through a modern city street and, instead of having to swerve to avoid a Swiss-cheese of potholes, you instead have to swerve to avoid a municipal worker drone as it swoops down to repair the road. That’s the dream of engineers in the U.K., who see a future of “self-repairing cities.”
A team from the University of Leeds in England wants to develop autonomous repair drones that will flit around the city, spotting problems and repairing them as they go. The project seems almost absurdly optimistic, but the university has won a $6.4 million grant to finance the work.
“We want to make Leeds the first city in the world to have zero disruption from street works,” says the School of Civil Engineering’s Professor Phil Purnell in a release. “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.”
There will be three kinds of robot, all with catchy names. “Perch and Repair” robots will perch like birds, then swoop down to repair above-ground level infrastructure, like street lamps. “Perceive and Patch” robots will hang around on the lookout for potholes and then fix them up. And finally, “Fire and Forget” is not a harsh way to get rid of current human workers, but a robot that is dropped into the pipework under the streets and left to roam “performing inspection, repair, metering and reporting” as it goes.
The ambitious project would do away with human street repair teams entirely. “Our robots will undertake precision repairs and avoid the need for large construction vehicles in the heart of our cities,” says Rob Richardson of Leeds University’s National Facility for Innovative Robotic Systems. “We will use the unique capabilities of our robotic facility to make new, more capable robots.”
Key to the idea is something that could work just as well with existing human-powered repair: constant monitoring of city infrastructure to diagnose problems before they get so big they need a construction crew and several days worth of closed streets to fix. It’s much easier to fill a pothole when it’s just a small crack, instead of waiting until its big enough to swallow the front wheel of a pizza-delivery moped. “We will target our interventions so that they are invisible to the human eye, before they become a real problem,” says university’s Raul Fuentes.
The big question, then, is who will repair the robots themselves?