How One Small Robot Could Help Save 2 Trillion Gallons Of Drinking Water

"I thought this was wrong and I needed to change it."

A small robot developed by an MIT grad is proving the power of technology to improve communities. According to Quartz, over the past six years, 28-year-old You Wu has been creating robots that can travel through pipes to detect leaks. 

The current version of the rubbery robot, called Lighthouse, won Wu the U.S. James Dyson Award this year. Business Insider reports that Wu was inspired by his experience growing up in China, where officials would conserve water by shutting it off for half a day each week. 


"I grew up thinking we were good citizens conserving energy and water for the greater good," Wu told Quartz. "When I learned that every day, 20% of clean water in the world is lost due to leaks while we were making a sacrifice to conserve water, I thought this was wrong and I needed to change it."

What sets Lighthouse apart from other leak-detection methods is that it doesn't rely on sound, which can be difficult in loud cities. As Wu explains on the James Dyson Award website, the robot's sensors are pulled by the suction force of the leaks, and its findings can be downloaded to create a map of their locations. There is no interruption to the water service.

The invention could have a huge impact on communities around the world. Business Insider cites a 2017 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers, which estimated 240,000 water main breaks in the United States each year, wasting more than 2 trillion gallons of drinking water.

It's not the only innovative idea that's working to improve urban communities. A 3-D crosswalk in Montreal, for example, aims to prevent pedestrian accidents by slowing drivers down.

"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," Wu told Business Insider. The robots have already been tested in Saudi Arabia, the U.K., and Virginia, with pilot programs in Massachusetts and Australia.

You can learn more about Wu's robot on the website for his startup, WatchTower Robotics.

Cover image: Ternavskaia Olga Alibec /


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