Street repairs are a part of everyday life. When a pothole appears, most people just walk around it and carry on like it isn’t there. It’s not that people are too busy to notice, though. In urban settings, it’s almost a given that you’ll encounter some form of street damage because they’re unpredictable and extremely difficult to fix.
The city of Leeds has been plagued by this problem for decades. That’s why it plans to upgrade the area with self-repairing technology using autonomous robots. “We want to make Leeds the first city in the world to have zero disruption from street works,” explained Professor Phil Purnell from the School of Civil Engineering. “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.”
To cater to all types of street repairs, the group will rely on three sets of drones. The first type is limited to “perch and repair” missions. It specializes in elevated structures, like power lines, lamps, traffic lights and transformers. Exclusive to pothole damage, “perceive and patch” quadcopters seek out inconsistencies on roads and highways. The “fire and forget” robots work inside utility pipes. Like the Super Mario Brothers, the machines scour the underground for leaks. How the bots will perform these tasks still remains unclear.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) granted $6.4 million to the University of Leeds for the massive project. At the moment, researchers are focusing on enhancing the capabilities of the drones to prepare for intense labor. To put things into perspective, the machines would have to be strong enough to carry heavy bags of concrete with ease. They also have to be delicate enough to handle sensitive wiring and electrical boards.
The city isn’t content with general repair work; it wants machines to uncover small issues before they become disruptive to daily living. Roads, for example, can remain open and commuters will be able to get to their destination without fear of ongoing construction and detours. To accomplish this, the group plans on deploying an army of bots to patrol the local region. “The idea is to create a city that behaves almost like a living organism,” said Raul Fuentes, a researcher at the School of Civil Engineering during an interview with Motherboard. “The robots will act like white cells that are able to identify bacteria or viruses and attack them. It’s kind of like an immune system.”
The group reassures locals that the project won’t steal jobs from people, nor will it trigger a robotic apocalypse. Fuentes highlighted that droids will simply do all the risky work, leaving humans out of harm’s way. Researchers hope to have the supporting infrastructure fully installed by 2035, with new components to be added slowly until 2050. For now, while engineers are developing the robust system, locals (and the rest of the world) will have to put up with slow repairs and the occasional sightings of plumber’s buttcrack.