HUBweek Change Maker: You Wu

Founder, Pipeguard Robotics

You Wu is the founder of Pipeguard Robotics Inc and the inventor of its core product, Robot Daisy, an in-pipe leak detection robot that can find water pipe leaks early and accurately. You is a 4th year PhD student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, and has been working on pipe leak detection since starting his Master’s degree at MIT in 2012. He also received his Bachelor’s Degree from Purdue University.

Q: What problem(s) are you working to solve with Pipeguard Robotics?

A: Access to clean water is one of the world’s biggest pressing needs, yet today’s water distribution systems lose an average of 20 percent of their supply because of leaks. Moreover, leaks are the major cause of sinkholes that cause serious structural damage to buildings and roads. At Pipeguard Robotics, we offer a unique solution, named Robot Daisy, to find leaks early, many months before they become catastrophic. Thus, we can prevent the loss of billions of gallons of water annually and protect our communities’ infrastructure.

Q: Where has Robot Daisy been tested and what has that trial process been like?

A: Robot Daisy has been tested in a facility in Saudi Arabia. The facility is owned by Pipetech LLC, a Saudi based leak detection service company. They test and certify technologies in this facility according to the largest oil company in the world, Saudi Aramco’s standard. There was a 2-inch- diameter cast iron pipe loop, zigzagging throughout the facility. There was a man-made leak at one point on the pipe, losing about 1 gallon of water a minute. We repeated the trial for a dozen times. During each trial, a customized launch device was connected to one section of the pipe, and the robot were flushed into the pipe. After about 6 minutes, 660 feet and multiple turns, we received the robot at a customized retrieval tool installed at another end of the pipe loop. Then we took Robot Daisy out of the pipe, downloaded its data and ran my analytics algorithm. In one click, the algorithm produced a simple map of the pipe with indication of the location of the leak. It turned out the calculated location of the leak was within 1 foot of its actual location.

Q: We’ve read that you’re a member of the Mechatronics Research Lab as well as a Research & Product Lead at MIT. Tell us a little bit about the research you are doing. Are you working on anything beyond Robot Daisy at the moment?

A: The two roles are the same, actually. I am a PhD student in the Mechatronics Research within MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering. The head of our lab is Prof. Kamal Youcef-Toumi. My PhD work is about Robot Daisy, but it has a longer, fancier title — Soft Material Sensors and Robotics, with Application to Water Pipe Leak Detection. I am the project lead there, and in my team there are three new master students and two undergraduate students. Robot Daisy has always been my main project. Besides Robot Daisy, I am mentoring students on another research project in our lab, and it is about using robots to recycle and repair cellphones.

Q: What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far in your career?

A: Loneliness. For two years, I was the only graduate researcher on Robot Daisy, previously known as the leak detection project in our lab. The other researchers left, funding was limited, and the project was at a stage where things worked in the lab but didn’t work in the field. There were moments I wanted to give up and switch to other projects. However, it has been my goal since a very young age to make a real impact on the world and especially make the world a more sustainable place. I knew what a shortage of energy and water felt like when I grew up in the most populated part of China. I knew if I quit, none of the positive changes I envisioned would happen, and the knowledge I collected about water leak detection would be lost. Thus I decided to carry on. It was very fortunate that later I was able to recruit a few undergraduate students from MIT and even a high school intern to help me in the project (they were almost free labor, almost). It was also very fortunate that I made it work at the end of Summer 2016, and you see Robot Daisy. Now, we have much more funding and a much bigger team to advance the technology in our lab at MIT. There are even MBAs from MIT working with me to spin Pipeguard Robotics out of MIT and running. We also have dozens of pilot requests from water companies around the world. It feels good to be busy in a team.

Q: Is there anything you wish you’d known when you first started out?

A: Recently I was giving advice to new MIT master students in my lab. They were like me 5 years ago. The advice I gave was a little bit long:
There will be ups and downs in any work, and particularly in developing something new. It is very unlikely that something would work the first time, or in the first few times. The Robot Daisy I showed to the public was the first one of its kind that worked, and it was version 11. It took me 10 iterations of trial, fail, analyze and trial again before I got here. And it was still just a minimum viable product. Be patient, have faith in yourself, don’t quit after just a couple failures.

Q: As the winner of HUBweek’s 2017 Demo Day presented by Bank of America, what advice do you have for other companies who are interested in participating?

A: HUBweek Demo Day and HUBweek in general is an eye-opening event. It brought me out of the MIT ecosystem, and showed me all the wonderful things, ideas and people outside my previously limited social circle. There are more problems in the world that I wasn’t aware of but I may be able to contribute to their solving. There were people working on different stages of their startups showcasing at HUBweek Demo Day. Each of them could offer valuable advice from their experience to me, and so could many of the audience and guests. I suggest companies to immerse themselves in this event and get the most of HUBweek. Everyone is a winner here doing amazing things in the area they are passionate about. At Pipeguard Robotics, we felt very lucky to be selected as winning the pitch competition this year. If I were capable to offer any advice, I could only say, show your passion and make emotional connections with the audience and judges. If you can make the audience feel like they want to be on your team and pursue your cause, you won already.

Q: What is one key takeaway from your experience at HUBweek this year?

A: I have to come back to HUBweek next year, and years after. There are so much more interesting and inspiring things happening in Boston, the most dynamic and innovative city in the world. It is a rare opportunity to be able to see so much and get inspired so many times in a few days.

Q: Finally, what impact do you believe Pipeguard Robotics and Robot Daisy will have here in Boston and/or abroad?

A: Pipeguard Robotics is on a mission to help water companies find leaks, save water and protect infrastructure. Boston, among other one-million population cities around the world, loses on the order of 10 million dollars of revenue a year due to water leaks, and millions more for property damage and repair cost that the water company actually pay for. Give us three years, and we can cut down all those losses by half, and help water companies prevent sinkholes in the streets and other serious infrastructure damages caused by water leaks. We will empower water companies around the world to deliver a more efficient, reliable water service, and make their communities safer.

Meet and interact with Wu and dozens of other Change Makers during the first Change Maker Conference on Oct. 8–9. Learn more and register now.

The HUBweek Change Maker series showcases the most innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world.

To stay up to date on our Change Makers, events in Boston, and everything else at HUBweek, subscribe to our newsletter, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.