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

16 Jan 2023

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

Since the use of CCTV for pipeline inspections was first introduced in the 1950s, the process of reviewing footage has remained 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 adopted cutting-edge technology to dramatically speed up the process.

VAPAR CCTV sewers.pngEvery year the water company for the North West inspects more than 1,000km of pipeline using CCTV cameras – and that generates thousands of hours of footage which has been manually reviewed to check for pipe damage or obstructions which can lead to flooding.

Now the time needed to review footage has been dramatically reduced thanks to a successful partnership forged 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 adopted faster.

VAPAR uses AI to speed up pipeline repairs by semi-automating the fault detection process from inspection footage.

Founded by two female engineers in Australia, VAPAR first began working with United Utilities in the second Innovation Lab held in 2019. Initially the focus was on developing the accuracy of the AI.

With that successfully completed VAPAR was put to the test as part of the United Utilities routine maintenance inspection programme – and the results were impressive with VAPAR reducing survey processing times from 10 days to two days – an 80% improvement.

Katy Bevan, Programme Delivery Manager for United Utilities’ Wastewater Network said: “VAPAR has truly transformed the way that we work, it provides us with a consistent method of defect coding that equates to a consistent decision-making process on investment.

“It has also massively reduced timescales of both the time needed to review footage and the turnaround time from footage being recorded on site to decisions about cleaning and remedial activities being made. In addition we are also benefiting from lower costs, and the generation of performance management tools to support our targets.”

The complex nature of pipeline inspections makes it impossible for AI to be used as a stand-alone tool and the outputs still require review. VAPAR uses a ‘Collaborative Intelligence’ approach which sees AI being used to support human expertise.

VAPAR is now being rolled out more widely across United Utilities for use across the entire inspection program. It is also being integrated with United Utilities’ Dynamic Network Monitoring (DNM) platform. The platform contains feeds from thousands of monitors, plus other datasets that allow the business to take a proactive approach on how it manages 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 back in 2019. The highly collaborative approach that the United Utilities team adopted in the innovation process was fundamental to creating the impactful product and team that we have today.

“Their drive for continual innovation and creating value continues to guide our roadmap for the benefit of all of VAPAR’s other customers. We’re now looking at other markets, including North America, so that we can help even more water authorities optimise the budgets of their pipe maintenance programs”

Alice Leadbetter, Innovation Coordinator at United Utilities added: “We have been delighted with the speed and agility of VAPAR; in addition to their ground-breaking AI system - we have agreed an innovation development contract with them, so any new ideas we have together can be tested and adopted at speed too.”

Artificial intelligence makes our networks smarter

Innovative partnership helps to speed up our our pipeline repair process