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A world first in the pipeline

A robot will revolutionise how we maintain our underground high-pressure gas pipes – by inspecting them from the inside. And it could save around £60m over 20 years, as Project Sponsor Quentin Mabbutt explains.

Our high-pressure gas pipes help bring gas to nearly 11m UK homes and businesses. It’s vital we keep all 7,600km in good condition. And that’s hard when they’re buried underground. But we’re going to change how we check them, using a pioneering robot. 

Removing the guesswork

Currently, we have to dig to check sections of pipe. We choose them based on what we know about their age, and when they were last repaired. Sometimes there’s repair work to do, but not always. The Gas Robotic Agile Inspection Device (GRAID) will give us the inside story on the state of the pipes, taking away the guesswork. And that means better value for our repair budget. 

Work started in 2015 – we’ve chosen a design and we’re testing it, with live trials due later this year. Once GRAID starts work for real in late 2018, it could save around £60m over 20 years. Crucially, such savings help minimise household energy bills. And the carbon emissions we’ll cut are equivalent to the amount 500 homes would use in a year.

Seeing the potential 

The idea started with Ian Butt from Premtech, one of three small engineering and technology businesses working with us on GRAID. He was having coffee with a colleague, and they started to talk about robots and inspecting pipes. It went from there to using robots to go inside high-pressure pipes. 

He brought the idea to us, and we won £5.7m of funding from Ofgem, our regulator in the UK, through their Network Innovation Competition. It’s a good example of us having an eye for a great idea and working with others to make it happen. 

Premtech is mapping the pipes, creating the robot’s GPS system and test facility, and building the vehicle to take it to and from sections of pipework we want to check. Pipeline Integrity Engineers (PIE) are translating the robot’s data into usable information. And Synthotech are designing the robot itself. 

Designed to take the pressure 

It’ll need to be tough. Natural gas acts more like a liquid at high pressure. It creates five times the force a submarine faces underwater. At peak flow, it’ll be like a rugby prop is running at the robot. To overcome the challenge, the robot’s twin chassis design stabilises it while magnetic tracks make it cling to the pipes. 

An engineer will drive GRAID from the surface, making it stop, reverse and zoom in on specific sections of pipe, measuring thickness and looking for corrosion. 

We’re sharing the story with our industry and beyond, including rail infrastructure. We’ve also been inspiring would-be young engineers at events like the Big Bang Fair.

Related information

Published: June 2017