Listen on Apple Podcasts
Listen on Spotify
Listen on Google Podcasts

What Lurks Beneath: How Robots Can Save City Plumbing with Vanessa Speight

In this episode, we’re going underground, undersea and into your water and sewer pipelines with science fiction’s favorite problem-solvers…robots! Jay sits down with Vanessa Speight, a professor of Integrated Water Systems at the University of Sheffield, to learn how new, spider-like robots have the potential to locate and fix leaks in aging water pipes.

Jay and Vanessa discuss when we might actually see these pipe-traveling bots in action and what they can realistically do for developing nations, where drinking water loss can be as much as 70 per cent due to aging and unmaintained systems.

In our Last Word, professor Lucian Busoniu tells us about SeaClear, a project funded by the European Union, building the first fleet of autonomous robots to collect litter from the ocean floor.

Guest Bios

Vanessa SpeightVanessa Speight

Vanessa Speight is an internationally recognised expert in drinking water quality with a focus on potable water distribution systems, applications of models and data analytics for decision support, public health risk, and regulatory/policy development. Her primary interests are understanding and modeling the reactions between hydraulics, microbiological constituents, and chemical contaminants within urban water systems to design the sustainable water systems of the future. Speight’s approaches include laboratory experiments, field investigations, and data analytics. A new but rapidly expanding field of her research relates to Intermittent Water Distribution Systems – the dominant form of water supply for billions around the world – to better understand the impact of such operations on asset deterioration, water quality and public health.

Ongoing research is investigating how pipes fill and drain under different operating conditions, and what impact those operations have on water quality including biofilm growth, supported by field work in South Africa and Nepal. Speight was the Managing Director of TWENTY65, the EPSRC Grand Challenge Centre for Water working with 6 universities and 100+ industrial collaborative partners across the water cycle to develop flexible and synergistic solutions to meet future challenges for water. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society for Public Health, a Professional Engineer (Virginia, Maryland USA), and Deputy Editor for the journal AWWA Water Science.

Lucian BusoniuLucian Busoniu

Lucian Busoniu received his Ph.D. degree cum laude from the Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands, in 2009. He is a full professor with the Department of Automation at the Technical University of Cluj-Napoca, where he leads the group on Robotics and Nonlinear Control. He has previously held research positions in the Netherlands and in France. His research interests include nonlinear optimal control using artificial intelligence and reinforcement learning techniques, robotics, and multiagent systems. His publications include among others a book on reinforcement learning and several influential review articles. He serves on the editorial board of the Elsevier journal Engineering Applications of Artificial Intelligence, and was the recipient of the 2009 Andrew P. Sage Award for the Best Paper in the IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics. He has competitively obtained research funding in excess of 1.5 million EUR and was invited to present research on prime-time national TV and in other media.

Dive Deeper

  • Some companies already use tethered robots to investigate pipes that are inaccessible. But most of the network is currently inaccessible without digging. This is where much smaller, artificially intelligent machines come in. A new generation of underground robotic pipe patrollers is being tested at the Integrated Civil and Infrastructure Research Centre (ICAIR) at the University of Sheffield. (BBC)
  • Intermittent Water Supply (IWS) refers to piped water supply service that is available to consumers less than 24 hours per day and affects at least 1.3 billion people around the world. (International Water Association)
  • Today, more than 2 billion people lack access to safely managed water services. Around 4.5 billion children, women and men live without safely managed sanitation services. (UN SDG 6 Update)
  • The replacement value of UK buried water and wastewater pipes, a network with a length of approximately 1 million km, is between £300B and £600B. (Pipebots)
  • In developing countries, roughly 45 million cubic meters of water are lost daily with an economic value of over US$3 billion per year. (World Bank)

Photo Credit

  • Vanessa Speight – Submitted
  • Lucian Busoniu – Submitted

Full Transcript

Coming soon!