Can robots help us to manage our cities?

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By Dr Mehran Eskandari Torbaghan (School of Engineering)

Urban population is growing at a record-breaking rate, and regardless of its various negative impacts, it puts huge pressure on the already over-aged, sometimes not fully functional, urban infrastructure. This urban infrastructure includes roads, utilities (most of them buried under the ground) and the ground itself.

Which one of these listed infrastructures is the most important one for you? Break down of which of them has the highest impact on your life?

Scientifically, answering this question is not straightforward, as these are all interconnected to each other. Imagine a leaking pipe under the ground that has been softening its surrounding ground. The ground has lost part of its loading capacity and started settling so there are cracks forming on the top asphalt layer. These cracks when left untreated will allow water to ingress into the ground, making the situation worst, and ultimately leading to POTHOLE formation.

Pothole has been attracting a lot of attention from the public and media. It has been reported that £8 billion is needed to bring roads in England up to scratch.

Now, can we get any help from robots to solve pothole issue? Well, yes. A group of researchers at Universities of Birmingham, Leeds, Southampton and UCL are investigating the application of 3D Printing technology mounted on a robotic platform to fill the road cracks (Figure 1).

Figure 1: 3D printing asphalt UAV

The developed system can identify the cracks; scan them and then 3D print asphalt, which shows it potential for autonomous condition assessment and repair. The research group is also developing algorithms to automatically detect road defects (i.e. cracks and potholes) using machine-learning technique. One of the algorithms trains machine to use images captured by drones while other algorithm uses a sensing and navigation system inspired by the nematode worms.

Potential benefit of such a robotic detection and repair would be its ability to react faster compared to the current process at a lower cost, while detecting and filling the cracks when they are still small can prevent pothole formation.

Robots have been used for other applications related to managing our cities. For instance, in the US, RABIT™ is a robot developed by Rutgers University, which uses geophysical technologies, e.g. ground penetrating radar and electromagnetic waves, for detecting degradation and corrosion in concrete bridges. Geophysical techniques can give us the ability to see through the ground and look for defects not yet projected into the surface.

It seems that there is a huge potential for robots to be used in managing cities and their infrastructure. Yet there are a lot of challenges to overcome, probably by you


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