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Drone to spot leaks and fix pipelines wins international competition


Talib Alhinai, member of the Imperial Buildrone team
Talib Alhinai, member of the Imperial Buildrone team

Imperial college ‘Buildrone’ wins £190,000 to further develop prototype

A prototype drone from Imperial College London that can spot leaks and fix pipelines from the air has won a major international drone competition.

The Imperial ‘Buildrone’ team took first place in the United Arab Emirates’ Drones for Good Award for their aerial robot that can ‘print’ material to seal leaks in pipes. The team fought off competition from more than 1,000 entries from around the globe.   

The Buildrone team, part of Imperial’s Aerial Robotics Lab, was supervised by Dr Mirko Kovac and led by PhD student Talib Alhinai who are both from the Department of Aeronautics at Imperial.

The competition was an initiative of the United Arab Emirates, which aimed to bring together the innovative technologies behind civilian drones and showcase how they can be turned into practical solutions for improving people’s daily lives. 

Alhinai said: “Compared to current methods where humans have to maintain pipelines, our approach offers major time and cost savings while simultaneously reducing risks to engineers when doing inspection and repair tasks.” 

The aerial robot is currently configured to carry out its repairs by depositing liquid polyurethane foam on a leaking pipeline. After the foam is applied, it takes less than five minutes to fully expand upon contact with air to effectively seal the area. The sealant is well-suited to such applications as it is lightweight, fitting in with the drone’s carrying ability, and can expand up to 25 times its size after it is applied.

Alhinai explained that the drone was developed to tackle issues such as chemical leaks from pipeline networks that affect the energy and chemical industry. “Oil spills in vulnerable environments, leaks from explosive methane gas in cracked pipelines and toxic chemicals escaping supply pipes are a major hazard and can endanger humans, the ecosystem and lead to substantial financial losses,” he said. 

To stress the importance of the project Alhinai cited recent examples of pipeline leaks, including the toxic spill of cancerous chemicals in the Yellowstone River in the United States; a leak in Alberta, Canada, where five million litres of oil polluted the environment; and a gas pipeline explosion that killed five people in Mexico.

“Around 25 per cent of precious drinking water around the world is also lost due to leaking pipelines. The United Arab Emirates alone loses at least ten per cent, Saudi Arabia loses up to a staggering 60 per cent of its water through pipeline leaks and Syria and Jordan lose up to 45 per cent,” said Alhinai. “These leaks can be prevented and aerial robotics can be a game-changing tool to not only detect the leaks but also repair it on-site and in real-time.”

The Imperial team will use the £190,000 prize money to create a more user friendly interface for the robot and ensure it can withstand challenging weather conditions. They will also further develop the prototype for a pilot project with an industrial partner over the next six to 12 months.



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