The idea is that problems such as broken lightbulbs, potholes and damaged piping will be swiftly repaired by robots. At the moment, such repairs are a cost to the environment and the taxpayer. According to the media, there are three main areas of research which the project is divided into:
“Perch and Repair” – drones which can perch on high fixtures such as street lamps to be able to repair them.
“Perceive and Patch” – drones that can inspect and repair surface based systems such as potholes.
“Fire and Forget” – robots permanently in utility pipes, inspecting, maintaining and repairing them.
“Our vision is of a city that analyses and repairs itself and fends off decay and infection. We aim to restore the balance between the engineered and the natural system. Similarly to how the body works, we want to put these immune responses into the City,” says Professor Philip Purnell, from the School of Civil Engineering at University of Leeds. He is a leader in the research on this project.
The University has a grant of £4.2m from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to develop the technology, using its expertise in robotics and infrastructure. As well as receiving a large amount of additional funding from the government, the University is working closely with the City Council to make this a sustainable, socially viable project.
A common concern with projects like this is the impact they will have on jobs, but Purnell stresses the importance of the sustainability of this initiative, economically, environmentally and socially. “It’s not about putting road workers out of jobs; it’s about freeing up the workforce to do more interesting and complex work. It’s about training people to have new expertise to have more highly skilled, better paid jobs. Currently street repair work costs the country £4bn a year and uses five million tonnes of land materials. Traffic jams caused by roadworks also double the amount of pollution compared with free-flowing traffic. Construction workers also receive a large amount of physical and verbal abuse from the public. This project aims to eliminate such problems.
Purnell is keen to emphasise that environmental sustainability is “built into the DNA of this project.” “This is a green project in the broadest sense of the word”, he says. He adds that cities are already considered to be living organisms and the project is just aiming to create the technology to make it organic.
The plan is to make Leeds a fully self-repairing city by 2035. Although the project is in the very early stages of development, it is definitely one to keep an eye on.