MIT News says the robot can "detect leaks of just 1 to 2 millimeters in size, and at relatively low pressure" with faster speeds possible.
Dimitrios Chatzigeorgiou, a PhD student in mechanical engineering at MIT and the lead author of the research papers describing this system, says current detection methods are time-consuming and require expert operators. This small robot, Chatzigeorgiou says, can move as fast as 3 mph through pipes and is mostly automated.
Chatzigeorgiou envisions a infrastructure where the robot is placed inside a system of pipes indefinitely, conducting non-stop monitoring of the pipes.
Here's how the robot works, according to MIT News: "The current device consists of two parts: a small robot, with wheels to propel it through pipes (or, in some cases, to simply be swept along by flowing liquid), and a drum-like membrane that forms a seal across the width of the pipe.
"When a leak is encountered, liquid flowing toward it distorts the membrane, pulling it slightly toward the leak site. That distortion can be detected by force-resistive sensors via a carefully designed mechanical system (similar to the sensors used in computer trackpads), and the information sent back via wireless communications."
The researchers are in talks with gas and water companies to set up field tests under real-world conditions.