Micro-robotics research could solve traffic problems

Four British universities hope their research on micro-robotics will enable businesses and public sector organisations to carry out work in dangerous environments.

Traffic Jam Road Works Motorway - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Roadworks are estimated to cost the British economy £9bn a year – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Disruptive, expensive roadworks are some of the most common pet peeves of the British public. We hate them, and yet we’re not surprised by them!

That may soon be over though. Thanks to new government investment in micro-robotics research, the days of the roadworks creating horrendous rush hour traffic jams could be a mere memory.

Four British universities, Leeds, Bristol, Sheffield and Birmingham will share in a £7.2m government investment into micro-robotics that are designed to work in underground pipe networks and dangerous sites such as decommissioned nuclear facilities.

It’s hoped the micro-robotics technology will enable roadworks to take place without the need for roads to be dug up. Roadworks are estimated to cost the British economy £9bn a year.

Investment will also go towards developing airborne and underwater micro-robots. These robots could potentially monitor and maintain difficult-to-reach locations such as offshore wind farms and oil and gas pressure vessels.

Another £19m in government research money will go towards the use of robotics in hazardous environments, including drones for oil pipeline monitoring or artificial intelligence able to establish the need for repairs on satellites in orbit.

Chris Skidmore, the science minister, announced the £27m investment, which covers 15 projects and includes the development of micro-robots which are capable of inspecting and repairing pipes.

The project, and other robotics research projects will be funded by the Government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and will be delivered by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), a body which was established in April last year.

UKRI chief executive, Professor Sir Mark Walport said: “The projects announced today demonstrate how robots and artificial intelligence will revolutionise the way we carry out complex and dangerous tasks, from maintaining offshore wind farms to decommissioning nuclear power facilities.

“They also illustrate the leading role that the UK’s innovators are playing in developing these new technologies which will improve safety and boost productivity and efficiency.”

One challenge facing the development of micro-robotics will be ensuring the robots are able to withstand harsh conditions, including toxic and high-pressure environments. In order to be able to grip on to certain pipes, the robots will have to be the correct size.

Commenting on the project, Chris Skidmore said: “From deploying robots in our pipe network, so cutting down traffic delays, to using robots in workplaces to keep people safer, this new technology could change the world we live in for the better. Experts in our top UK universities across the country are well equipped to develop this innovative new technology.”


Reporting by Harry Wise