Acwa Robotics awarded at CES for its robot fighting water leaks


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

Sustainability is the central theme of this 56th edition of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which takes place in Las Vegas from January 5th to 8th. A godsend for Corsican start-up Acwa Robotics, whose aim is to conserve water resources. At the fair, it presents its robot called Clean Water Pathfinder, whose objective is to navigate through the pipes to map the distribution network and identify potable water leaks to promote predictive maintenance.

The CES, which awarded him four (in the Smart Cities, Sustainability, Eco-Design & Smart Energy and Human security categories for all categories, as well as the Best of Innovation Award, editor’s note), will offer him the opportunity to show how his robot works, after three years of development. “We want to respond to a global problem that continues to grow with the drought”, underlines Jean-François Guiderdoni, co-founder of Acwa Robotics, which dialogues with five major water services and has already been approached by structures in India and Taiwan. The energy crisis also highlights the need to eliminate water leaks. “It takes a lot of energy to pump drinking water. With rising energy prices, communities can no longer spend unnecessarily”, points out Jean-François Guiderdoni.

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

Robot guidance performed by data fusion

The two partners then decided in 2018 to create their robot to combat this problem. It took six months to design a first prototype validating the relevance of their project, then a year and a half to confirm its operation on water. It comes in the form of a long cylinder that has the ability to fold and unfold to move forward following the curvature of the tubes to be able to circulate in any type of tube. In a drinking water network there is no GPS signal or any means of communication. The robot is therefore equipped with 24 distance sensors, an inertial unit and uses odometry, a technology that records the robot’s movements, to orient itself thanks to the fusion of all this data, in order to provide an accuracy of around 10 centimetres. The robot also has an HD camera to provide high quality images to detect microcracks in the mortar. Slots are provided if customers need to use additional sensors to monitor temperature or water quality.

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

Teams just need to program their mission and put it in a tube, Clean Water Pathfinder doing everything else on its own, bringing back the necessary footage at the end of the mission thanks to its onboard technologies. It can explore 2 kilometers of pipeline per day. For energy supply, Acwa Robotics intends to take advantage of the manholes in the pipes to have charging points along their route. “The main restrictions concern resistance to pressure, which can reach 20 bar, and flow, whose speed can reach two meters per second. In robotics, the end customer does not tolerate errors or bugs”, explains Jean-Francois Guiderdoni.

The first version of the robot is equipped with a string to be able to bring him back if he doesn’t come back from a mission. But the goal is to make it fully autonomous. A third version is finalized to serve as a minimum viable product (MVP). It will integrate ultrasonic and electromagnetic sensors to take readings of the thickness of the tubes and the level of corrosion. Induction can be tested for recharge.

A first pilot will be carried out in January with the company Canal de Provence, which has 7,000 kilometers of pipelines. “The first request is to detect limestone formation there”, says Jean-François Guiderdoni. A second experiment will take place later this year in Dunkirk with Suez, this time to measure mainly the residual thickness of corrosion in the pipes and outside. The robot is scheduled to be sold by the end of 2023 on a per kilometer basis.

Clean Water Pathfinder will also fulfill a mapping need. On the European continent, Acwa Robotics estimates that only 20 to 30% of drinking water networks are correctly mapped, a number “insufficient to know where to intervene due to lack of having identified when to renew”. A French regulation, the DT-DICT, will impose from 2026 the location of the water distribution network with a precision of 40 centimeters and the evaluation of its condition. A perfect task for the robot. “Instead of returning from a mission to report data, the robot will be able to remain underground and transmit data over LoRaWAN or 5G to constitute the digital twin of the pipeline”, announces Jean-François Guiderdoni. Promising possibilities, according to French consultancy Niji, which predicts a craze at CES around digital twins and thus predicts great success on the ground for Acwa Robotics.

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