USBoR seeking: Water pipeline leak flaw detection technology


The US Bureau of Reclamation is seeking to identify state-of-the-art technologies that can precisely detect the location and severity of leaks and other related flaws in buried and operating water pipelines. Ideal solutions should be non-destructive/minimally invasive techniques or technologies that can identify damage, regardless of the infrastructure’s size, depth of burial, pipe material or interior lining.


The US Bureau of Reclamation has a network of over 20,000 miles of buried water conveyance pipelines which deliver water throughout the western United States. Pipeline components, such as joints, fittings, valves, and individual pipe sections, are subject to leakage due to damage, corrosion, and other types of degradation. Swift and precise detection of leaks in subterrain water pipelines will enable a more efficient infrastructure maintenance, while allowing the conservation of finite water resources and a more reliable service to the American public.



  • Precise detection - efficiently inspect buried pipelines to precisely determine leak location and severity
  • Versatile - identify leaks in multiple pipe types, including metallic, plastic, concrete and composite
  • Robust - solutions must be able to inspect the pipe while it is in service (pressurized, flowing water in pipe) and overcome operational complications such as limited pipe entry points, diameter changes, elevation changes, or lateral bends
  • Verifiable - the solution must be verifiable to demonstrate leak detection.


  • Identify leaks in buried pipelines carrying raw and treated water
  • Solutions are preferred to be non-destructive/minimally invasive
  • Cost-effective.

Possible solution areas

  • Sensors and monitors
  • Electrical and electronics manufacturing
  • Artificial intelligence and/or machine learning
  • Robotics
  • Internet of things
  • Chemistry and chemical engineering.

Desired outcome of the solution

Develop an understanding of the available techniques and technologies and identify future trends and research. Open to both cutting-edge commercial solutions in the industry and early-stage research in academia.

Previously attempted solutions

The US Bureau of Reclamation previously held a prize competition titled "Detecting Leaks and Flaws in Water Pipelines - Stage 1". The prize competition launched in March 2018 and was awarded in January 2019. In total, Stage 1 brought in 54 solutions with prizes being awarded to 4 participants.

  1. Chiron K9, LCC, received $25,000 for their solution to use trained canines to “smell” tracer materials, for example chlorine, that has permeated through the ground adjacent to leaks. The ability of trained canines to detect water pipeline leaks has been demonstrated in other countries. This technique holds promise for implementation on long, rural pipelines in Reclamation inventory with minimal impact to operation.
  2. Edem Tsikata, Ph.D., received $25,000 for his solution proposing the use of a "soft robot" that would detect pressure differences and surface anomalies on the pipe interior to indicate leaks and flaws. The robot would consist of a flexible ring of pressure sensors, LiDAR scanning equipment, and an odometer, all controlled by an on-board computer. The proposed robot would be inserted into the pipeline and auto-adapt to navigate pipe features such as bends, joints, and diameter changes.
  3. Eric Hinterman received $15,000 for his proposed solution to use a swarm of neutral-buoyancy active Radio-Frequency Identification tags that would be injected into the pipeline water flow; some would subsequently exit through leaks while the rest would be recovered from the water stream. The tags that exited at leaks could then be detected from the surface to pinpoint the leak location. This technique would be flexible for all pipe materials, diameters, and features.
  4. Bretton Holmes and Cliff Edwards received $10,000 for their solution using a drone with Raman LiDAR sensors to detect tracer gas that would exit through pipeline leaks. This technique is promising for assessing Reclamation pipelines in remote areas with rough terrain.

To learn more about this other prize competitions visit here.

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