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Leeds to test robots and drones for public services



City council to provide testbed for university research into using new technology to maintain infrastructure

The University of Leeds is ready to launch a research project on the potential to use robots and drones in public services.

It has won £4.2 million in funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to investigate how the technology can be used in maintaining public infrastructure such as utlility pipes, street lights and roads.

Leeds City Council is supporting the project. Along with the UK Collaboration for Research in Infrastructure and Cities it will help to test the robots before using them in trials around the city.

According to Professor Phil Purnell from the university’s School of Civil Engineering, the purpose is to make Leeds the first city in the world to suffer no disruption from street works.

“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,” said Purnell, who is leading the research team.


Named Balancing the impact of City Infrastructure Engineering on Natural systems using Robots, the project will involve three streams:

  • ‘Perch and repair’ to develop drones that can perch on structures at height and perform repairs such as on street lights.  
  • ‘Perceive and patch’ to develop drones able to autonomously inspect, diagnose, repair and prevent potholes in roads.
  • ‘Fire and forget ‘to develop robots that will operate indefinitely within live utility pipes performing inspection, repair, metering and reporting tasks.

It will also track the social, environmental, political and economic impact of the technologies in the city

Leader of Leeds City Council Councillor Judith Blake said: “We are delighted to be working with the University of Leeds on this intriguing and ground breaking project. We are very keen to explore new innovations and use the latest technologies to improve how the city runs through our Smart Cities programme, and this idea of turning science fiction into fact will be fascinating to watch.

"We look forward to following its development with interest as part of a relationship between the council and the university that continues to go from strength to strength.”

Researchers from other universities, including Birmingham, Southampton and University College London, will also take part in the project.

The funding is part of the £21 million made available under the Engineering Grand Challenges initiative, which also includes projects aimed at producing cleaner air for cities and improving the water infrastructure.

Image by Henrique Boney, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons




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