How Do You Build a Self-Repairing City?
Erin Green posted on December 03, 2015 |

You’re walking down a city street when overhead you notice something whizzing by overhead. Is it a bird? No, it’s a drone—and it’s fixing that streetlight.

Farther up the street, another drone is busily patching a crack in the road so it doesn’t become a pothole. Ah, just another normal day.

This may all sound like science fiction, but for a team of researchers at the University of Leeds in the UK, this is the future.


Facing a Grand Challenge

Fixer drones are the subject of a new research project being conducted at the university. It will require the skills of a wide range of disciplines, including civil, mechanical, electronic and electrical engineering, as well as computing, economics and environmental science.

It’s part of a larger funded project by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The endeavor will target one of the Engineering Grand Challenges, which calls for the restoration and improvement of urban infrastructure.

The ‘bots could eventually populate cities around the world, but for now Leeds will act as their testing ground.


Researchers hope that the fixer drone project will make problems like potholes a thing of the past. (Image courtesy of the University of Leeds.)

Researchers hope that the fixer drone project will make problems like potholes a thing of the past. (Image courtesy of the University of Leeds.)

Using Drones to Fix Infrastructure

The hope is that these little ‘bots will be able to identify issues with a city’s utility pipes, streetlights and roads. They will then be able fix these issues on their own—without disrupting the general populace.

It might be a little challenging for one type of robot to do all of these things, so researchers will be focusing on three varieties:

  • “Perch and Repair” drones will perch like birds on taller structures to perform repair tasks such as changing streetlight bulbs.
  • “Perceive and Patch” drones will inspect, diagnose, repair and prevent potholes and small road issues autonomously.
  • “Fire and Forget” robots will work indefinitely inside live utility pipes to inspect, repair, meter and report issues.

The researchers plan to develop unique robot designs and technologies for the helper drones, but they might not have to start from scratch.


Although no specific details about the drones have been released yet, they will be designed to locate and fix issues in aging infrastructure.

Although no specific details about the drones have been released yet, they will be designed to locate and fix issues in aging infrastructure.

Is This the Future of BIM Smart Cities?

Although the team hasn’t announced any specifics for the project yet, the concept for these drones could really benefit from the recent advances in BIM technology.

The entire idea behind BIM is to automate the design process by working behind the scenes. In a way, the helper drones mirror this mission by doing exactly the same thing for the maintenance stage.

“Detecting faults and weaknesses early and then quickly performing smart repairs is the key,” said Robert Richardson, director of the university’s National Facility for Innovative Robotic Systems.

In theory, the robots will be able to recognize issues before they become visible to the human eye. They will work behind the scenes to automate the maintenance process.

All they would need is access to a 3D model of a city like those that have been so popular this year (see “Modeling an Entire Country in 3D”) and these proposed robot handymen would be able to see and predict where and when issues in infrastructure would arise.

In all, the project to develop robot infrastructure fixers has the potential to be game-changing for smart cities. It presents the possibility of making these cities even smarter by giving them the ability to monitor and repair their own infrastructures.

This could be a perfect practical application for the improvements in BIM and 3D mapping. These drones will be a technology to watch.

To learn more about the robotic infrastructure fixers, check out the University of Leeds website.

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