Aluminum air pipes

GE built a Roomba to unclog your pipes

Anyone who lives in an old house knows that plumbing is hell. Lesser trouble involves a plumber cursing your tub with a metal snake, or worse, a giant truck shoving its way through tree roots causing backflows. You could even need to have a new pipe installed . . . simply to access your old ones! It is as costly as it is absurd.

But what if there was something like a Roomba to keep your plumbing clear? This is exactly what is developed by GE Research when launching the Pipe-worm. It’s a long, soft-bodied robot that worms its way through pipes, just like an earthworm, while plowing its way through the dark, just like a cockroach. The tool is initially designed for urban infrastructure, but may find its way into homes in the future.

“You can imagine putting it inside your pipe and never having to think about it again,” says Deepak Trivedi, mechanical engineer at GE Research. “Because the robot lives there and takes care of your pipes without you worrying about it.”

The research is funded by DARPA, and last year GE shared a heavier version of this robot to dig a tunnel in the ground. The Pipe Worm, on the other hand, is imagined to serve as an essential component of our existing infrastructure, as a means of monitoring, cleaning and even repairing sewers and fiber optic pipes to keep them operational.

How it works? Instead of complicated mechanics, the Pipe-worm relies on what is called “soft robotics”. With a flexible fabric body, it uses air or oil pressure to expand and contract like a long organic muscle. (A simple pump – imagine an airbed inflator – would be placed outside the hose to power the robot.)

By studying the movement of earthworms, the team designed their robot to navigate pipes without wheels. Specifically, the magic of stepping comes down to peristaltic motion, a counter-intuitive geometry of muscles. When the worm’s muscles contract, they may shorten but widen. This phenomenon allows the front of the auger to fatten up for a better grip on the pipe, while the rear contracts forward. By synchronizing the actuation between the front and rear muscles, the pipe worm can move forward or backward, and push or pull. And don’t let her soft body fool you. Although he is the size of a snake, his artificial muscles are extraordinarily strong, capable of pushing or pulling thousands of pounds. And pulling the weight is important, since for now this robot runs on a long umbilical cord that supplies it with air or oil pressure. Additionally, its front end can be equipped with tools like a drill to break up clumps.

[Photo: GE Research]

“Because it’s powerful, you can do more than just use it for inspections,” says Trivedi. “You can use it for repairs. Break fatbergs or even weld pipes. Meanwhile, a kevlar skin, treated with waterproof and other coatings that GE does not want to disclose, keeps the Pipe-worm in one piece throughout this process.

Yet power and durability are only part of what makes the robot so appealing. His other important trait is autonomy, and this draws inspiration from the cockroach’s mapping abilities. Cockroaches rely on two antennae to find their way through tight spaces. The pipe worm has antennae placed on its body. These are simple mechanisms that do not smell much. All they know is where they fold. But when supercharged with a machine learning algorithm, that data is enough to allow the robot to navigate its way through complex pipe systems, turning on sharp angles and mapping slopes. You can literally put the pipe worm in a pipe and it won’t just find its own way through the system; he will draw you a map.

GE won’t detail exactly how (for competitive reasons), but the robot can live permanently in pipes, since its design doesn’t block the flow of water. As for how he fixes hooves? Because it has thousands of pounds of force, the robot can push almost anything small out of the way. It can also be fitted with attachments, such as a GE-created tunneling bit that can pulverize hard clogs.

The potential infrastructure benefits are incredible. New York alone spent $19 million last year handling the aforementioned fatbergs (which, by the way, are a combination of non-degrading “disposable” wipes, greases, and soaps that create hard lumps inside the sewers). But the robot can do small jobs just as well.

“One thing about this robot is that it could be scaled down very easily,” says Trivedi. “This one is a meter or two long, but we could do something a few inches and go into smaller pipes.” These smaller pipes may not be found in your city or home, but inside machines like airplane engines.

So when will we see the pipe worm making its way into our cities, or even our homes? For now, a GE spokesperson said “we are engaging with a number of commercial entities to evaluate the technology and will be testing the technology in the coming months.”

Undoubtedly, larger-scale infrastructure applications could be more lucrative for GE. But a robot that can live inside any home’s plumbing to keep it clean is also very appealing – and Trivedi suggests commercial work from GE could cut costs, making the robot a residential reality.

“Certainly in terms of the future, this robot is made of mostly common and off-the-shelf materials,” says Trivedi. “As volumes increase, it could definitely become something that is available, and very cheaply, to retail customers.”