The UK government is investing £26.6m in micro robots to help repair the country’s vast underground pipe network, which could greatly reduce disruptive roadworks.

At the moment, repairs on the UK’s huge underground pipe network can cause significant disruption, with 1.5 million road excavations taking place every year. The traffic closures and disruption to businesses is estimated to cost more than £5bn, meaning a technological solution could reduce disturbance and costs.

Scientists from 4 British universities will use £7m government investment to develop 1cm-long micro robots that use sensors and navigation systems to find and mend cracks in pipes. This means that underground pipes and tunnels can be repaired without the road being dug up.

A further £19.6m government investment will fund projects to send these robots to hazardous or hard-to-reach environments such as offshore windfarms and nuclear decommissioning facilities to carry out inspections and maintenance.

Researchers will also test new technologies, such as the use of artificial intelligence (AI) software on satellites in orbit to detect when repairs are needed, and drones for oil pipeline monitoring.

Science Minister Chris Skidmore believes that these micro robots could help improve safety and convenience:

“While for now we can only dream of a world without roadworks disrupting our lives, these pipe-repairing robots herald the start of technology that could make that dream a reality in the future.

“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.”

This project is part of the modern Industrial Strategy, a government initiative in which money has been invested in developing cutting-edge technology and create high-skilled jobs.

The UK is already a world-leader in robotics technologies, and these projects will help support the future growth of this sector, as well as further integrating robotics into various areas of business.

UK Research and Innovation Chief Executive, Professor Sir Mark Walport believes that the technology could be especially useful in remote locations:

“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.”