Automated asset inspection unlocks miles of data and speeds up pipeline repair

Artificial intelligence is helping to speed up repairs to United Utilities' sewer network by semi-automating the review of CCTV inspection footage.

Since CCTV was first used for pipeline inspections in the 1950s, the review of footage has been largely manual – and very time-consuming. The increasing volume of work across the water sector has highlighted the need for modernisation.

Now United Utilities has introduced cutting-edge technology to dramatically speed up the process.

Each year, the North West Water Authority inspects more than 1,000km of pipes with closed-circuit television cameras, generating thousands of hours of footage that is manually reviewed to identify pipe damage or blockages that could lead to flooding.

The time required to review footage has now been dramatically reduced thanks to a successful partnership with VAPAR, an Australian artificial intelligence (AI) company. The partnership was developed through United Utilities' highly regarded Innovation Lab, which is designed to help new ideas get implemented faster.

VAPAR uses AI to accelerate pipeline repairs by semi-automating the fault detection process using inspection images.

Founded by two female engineers in Australia, VAPAR began working with United Utilities in its second Innovation Lab in 2019, initially focusing on developing the accuracy of AI.

Following successful completion, VAPAR was put to the test as part of United Utilities' routine maintenance inspection program – and the results were impressive: VAPAR reduced inspection turnaround times from 10 days to two – an 80% improvement.

Katy Bevan, Programme Delivery Manager for United Utilities’ wastewater network, said:

“VAPAR has really changed the way we work. It provides us with a consistent method of error coding that corresponds to a consistent investment decision-making process.

“In addition, the timeframe for reviewing footage has been significantly reduced, as has the turnaround time between recording footage on site and deciding on cleanup and remedial actions. In addition, we are benefiting from lower costs and the development of performance management tools to support our objectives.”

Due to the complexity of pipeline inspections, it is impossible to use AI as a standalone tool and the results have yet to be verified. VAPAR uses a “collaborative intelligence” approach, using AI to support human expertise.

VAPAR is now being rolled out more broadly at United Utilities and will be used across the inspection program. It will also be integrated into United Utilities' Dynamic Network Monitoring (DNM) platform. The platform includes feeds from thousands of monitors as well as other data sets that allow the company to proactively manage its network.

Amanda Siqueira, co-founder and CEO of VAPAR, added:

“We were new to the UK water industry when we joined the Innovation Lab in 2019. The highly collaborative approach the United Utilities team took to the innovation process was fundamental to creating the impactful product and team we have today.

“Their commitment to continuous innovation and value creation continues to shape our roadmap for the benefit of all of VAPAR’s other customers. We are now exploring other markets, including North America, so we can help even more water authorities optimize their pipe maintenance program budgets.”

Alice Leadbetter, Innovation Coordinator at United Utilities, added:

“We are excited about VAPAR's speed and agility. In addition to their groundbreaking AI system, we have an innovation development agreement with them so that any new ideas we have together can also be quickly tested and adopted.”

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