You Wu decided to pursue studies in water scarcity and conservation because of his experience growing up in a town in China where officials shut off water for half a day every week to conserve. He moved to the United States to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and began designing a robot that could detect leaks in water pipes at a mere 23-years-old, according to Business Insider.
Wu, now 28, has finally built a working prototype called Lighthouse that moves with the water through the pipe, using its “hands” to feel for suction forces caused by leaks. Designed to inspect pipes without interrupting water service, the robot is inserted into the system through a hydrant or three-way junction. After that, it moves through the water system, creating a map that can tell operators where there are weak spots in the pipes, how large the leaks are, and how long they have until those leaks start causing irreparable damage,.
According to The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2017 “Infrastructure Report Card,” the United States wastes more than 2 trillion gallons of treated drinking water every year thanks to the annual 240,000 water-main breaks. Around the world, 20% of clean drinking water is wasted daily.
Though there are many other technologies on the market that share Wu’s goal, they mostly rely on pipe vibrations and pressure reduction, which don’t do well in major cities because of the abundant noise and movement. Acoustics are not a factor with Lighthouse, however, so it can be successful in suburban and urban areas.
Fresh off being named to Forbes’ 2018 “30 Under 30” list for manufacturing and industry and winning the James Dyson Award, Wu is now starting up a company with his friend Tyler Mantel called WatchTower Robotics, which was founded in June and is supported by the Techstars Sustainability Accelerator.
Lighthouse has been tested in Saudi Arabia, Virginia, and the United Kingdom, and is getting ready to star in a pilot program in Massachusetts with the Cambridge Water Department and in Australia with the pipeline-service company Detection Services.
Wu says, “My eventual goal is to put our robotic tools into the hands of field technicians in every single city around the world, so that every single city in the world can have less water loss due to leaks and support more population growth.”