Acwa Robotics was awarded at CES for its water leak-resistant robot

The Corsican start-up is presenting at the Consumer Electronics Show its cylindrical pipe explorer robot to detect drinking water leaks.

Sustainability is the main theme of this 56th edition of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which will take place in Las Vegas from January 5 to 8. A godsend for Corsican and Aix-based start-up Acwa Robotics, which goal is to conserve water resources. In the show, it presented the robot called Clean Water Pathfinder, whose purpose is to navigate the pipes to map the drinking water network and analyze its condition to promote preventive maintenance.

CES, which awarded it four Awards (in Smart Cities, Sustainability, Eco-Design & Smart Energy and Human security for all categories, as well as the Best of Innovation Award, editor’s note), will offer him the chance to show how his robot works, after three years of development. “We want to provide an answer to a global problem that continues to grow with the drought”, underlined Jean-François Guiderdoni, co-founder of Acwa Robotics, who is talking to the five main water services and approached by structures in India and Taiwan. The energy crisis also highlights the need to eliminate water leakage. “It takes a lot of energy to pump drinking water. With rising energy prices, communities can no longer afford to spend unnecessarily”, highlights Jean-François Guiderdoni.

It is precisely the repeated reduction of water in Corsica every summer and the fact that 20 to 30% of water in France is lost every year during its transport that prompted the two co-founders to launch their project. “Globally, 120 billion cubic meters are lost every year, which is twice the annual consumption of Brazil. These leaks come from the lack of renewing the pipes because it is very expensive. Only 0.6% of the network renewed every year, which is not enough to keep it in good condition”, explained Jean-François Guiderdoni.

The orientation of the robot performed by data fusion

So the two partners decided in 2018 to create their robot to combat this problem. It took them six months to design the first prototype that proved the relevance of their project, then a year and a half to confirm its operation in water. It comes in the form of a long cylinder that has the ability to fold and unfold to move forward while following the curvature of the pipes to circulate through any type of pipe. In a drinking water network, there is no GPS signal or any form of communication. So the robot is equipped with 24 distance sensors, an inertial unit and uses odometry, a technology that records the movements of the robot, to orient itself thanks to the fusion of all this data, in order to provide with an accuracy of the order of 10 centimeters. The robot also has an HD camera to provide high-quality images to detect micro-cracks in the mortar. Spaces are provided if customers need to use additional sensors, to monitor temperature or water quality.

“In robotics, the end customer does not allow any errors or bugs”

Teams simply need to program its mission and place it in a pipe, the Clean Water Pathfinder alone, then return the necessary images at the end of the mission thanks to its on-board technologies. It can explore 2 kilometers of pipeline per day. For its power supply, Acwa Robotics plans to take advantage of the manholes in the pipes to have charging points along its route. “The main obstacles have to do with resistance to pressure, which can reach 20 bar, and flow, the speed of which can be two meters per second. In robotics, the end customer does not allow any errors or bugs” , explained Jean-Francois Guiderdoni.

The first version of the robot was equipped with a wire to return it, in case it did not return from a mission. But the goal is to make it fully autonomous. A third version is being finalized to serve as a minimum viable product (MVP). It will include ultrasonic and electromagnetic sensors to take readings of the thickness of the pipes and the level of corrosion. Induction can be tested for recharging.

The first pilot will be carried out in January with the Canal de Provence company, which has 7,000 kilometers of pipes. “The first request is to see the formation of limestone there”, suggests Jean-François Guiderdoni. A second experiment will take place later this year at Dunkirk with Suez, this time to measure mainly the residual corrosion thickness on the pipes and outside. Marketing of the robot is planned for the end of 2023 through one service per kilometer.

Clean Water Pathfinder will also meet a mapping need. On the European continent, Acwa Robotics estimates that only 20 to 30% of drinking water networks are properly mapped, a number that is “not enough to know where to intervene because of the lack of determination when to renovate”. A French regulation, DT-DICT, will be imposed from 2026 to locate the water distribution network to an accuracy of 40 centimeters and to assess its condition. A perfect task for the robot. “Instead of returning from a mission to report the data, the robot will be able to stay underground and send data to LoRaWAN or 5G to form the digital twin of the pipeline”, announced Jean-François Guiderdoni. The possibilities are promising, according to the French consulting firm Niji, which predicts a CES craze around digital twins and thus predicts great success on the site for Acwa Robotics.

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