Photo: Melanie McMullen
The rise of megacities such as Tokyo and Delhi, India, are quickly becoming the new reality across the globe. According to a new urban population report from Bank of America Merrill Lynch, 80 percent of cities worldwide are showing signs of fragility. The report notes that because cities such as London, San Francisco and New York City are engines of global economic growth, they are at a tipping point and set to be transformed by disruptive technology such as broadband, 5G, sensors, IoT, Big Data, cloud and AI.
Officials in these megacities face increasing pressure to repair and beautify cities through financially and physically sustainable mechanisms. Self-healing cities could be the technological solution that addresses the concerns associated with the rise of global megacities and other densely populated urban cores.
The self-healing city concept, a five-year project funded by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), has been jumpstarted by Rob Richardson and Phillip Purnell, two academics at the University of Leeds in the UK, as well as local technology firms. Additional partners for the project include local city councils, industrial representatives and academics from University of Birmingham and University of Southampton.
The group envisions an urban landscape where robots with sensors can “identify, diagnose and repair street-works through minimally invasive techniques” to meet the UK’s Great Challenge of zero disruption from street works by 2050. Theoretically, a robot would be able to address an infrastructure problem as soon as a report of a problem has been noted.
According to a report in the Institute of Making, Richardson says that robot-run repairs would “increase overall precision level and drastically decrease the amount of disruptions to daily commutes, rush hour and other high traffic times for these self-healing cities.”
The IoT Patch Team
Specifically, the project is focused on developing three case study concepts that will help planners create a sustainable, efficient self-healing city. Those include:
● Perch and repair. Drones will perform minor repairs, including remote maintenance and street light modernization.
● Perceive and patch. Groups of autonomous flying vehicles will perform inspections, run diagnostics and prevent and repair highway issues, such as potholes.
● Fire and forget. Various task-oriented robots will operate for an indefinite amount of time via live utility pipes. These hybrid robots can conduct inspections, metering, reporting and repairs. In terms of size, these robots will range from as small as the average worm or insect to as large as birds.
As part of this project, the Institute of Making will research materials and 3D-printing technologies for minimally invasive sensing, maintenance and repair of city infrastructure. This includes assessing non-conventional materials for additive manufacturing that may be suitable in 3D repair of infrastructure and mechanical testing of materials for 3D printing, scaffolds and inserts.
Partners of the project have noted that the use of robots to create self-healing cities will have many positive effects on communities, which include:
● Increase in overall well-being, happiness, health and economic success of people who live in these cities, due to a decrease in impact of manmade infrastructure on these natural systems.
● Increase in innovative insights and techniques employed by UK researchers in urban planning and architecture, by researching sensing and automated repairs.
● Increase in types of technology that can autonomously prevent, detect and diagnose problems with old and new infrastructure.
Self-healing cities will go beyond drones and innovative robots. Constructionists would also incorporate different types of resilient materials for buildings and other types of infrastructure within these urban centers. These materials include self-healing concrete that contain bacteria capable of repairing cracks and holes. The water-activated bacteria eat food within the concrete mix and patch up breaks and ridges within the building material. Similarly, researchers at Cambridge are currently looking into how a combination of bones and eggshells can be a substitute for steel and concrete.
These alternative forms of materials can be a valuable antidote to the increasing risk of infrastructural impact of natural disasters, since they provide a unique form of structure and resistance to external damages.
To learn more about the self-healing cities project, visit the Institute of Making.