Tiny robots the size of a human fingernail will one day swim and crawl along Britain’s vast network of underground pipes, working in teams to carry out repairs in place of people.
The government is to plough £7m into the creation of the micro robots, which it hopes will one day perform infrastructure maintenance work on pipes, roads and other dangerous work environments.
Some will swim while others will crawl, the government said, and they could be as small as 1cm-long. The robots will also be able to communicate with one another to cooperate on tasks.
Artists' impressions distributed by the government depict tiny spherical workers – some with eyes, antenna and a tail – swimming through pipes and using claw-like devices to fix problems. Others are shown with six legs, crawling along the sides of tunnels above the water line, working together on broken piping.
Scientists from the universities of Sheffield, Leeds, Birmingham and Bristol will develop the robotic devices that will use sensors and navigation systems to repair cracks in pipes, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said.
Science minister Chris Skidmore said: “While for now we can only dream of a world without roadworks disrupting our lives, these pipe-repairing robots herald the start of technology that could make that dream a reality in the future.”
The traffic closures caused by roadworks is estimated to cost more than £5bn a year, a sum the government thinks these robots could significantly reduce.
The department is also funding the development of larger robots, such as drones, which will fly out to inspect and maintain offshore wind turbines and oil and gas pressure vessels.
A further 14 projects will get £19.6m investment, through the government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF), to develop the worker robots.
Researchers will test their creations’ software, including artificial intelligence (AI) systems, on satellites in orbit to detect when repairs are needed.
The £26.6m total funding going towards the projects is part of the government’s modern Industrial Strategy, aimed at modernising British industry through innovation.
UK Research and Innovation chief executive, Sir Mark Walport, said the announcement illustrated how robots and AI could “revolutionise the way we carry out complex and dangerous tasks”.