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Dirty Business: Robots roam the sewer network
January 22, 2013
Ciara Byrne

Autonomous roving robots may be coming to a sewer near you. RedZone Robotics just launched a new robot to inspect mid-sized sewage pipes for corrosion, deformation and debris in order to prevent leaks which can cause a health hazard.

City waste water networks are often outdated, decaying and maintained by skeleton maintenance crews.The EPA estimates that U.S. investments in wastewater will need to increase by over $150 billion over the next two decades to maintain current services. Many water companies have pipes one hundred feet underground which have never been inspected.

Redzone’s first sewer robot Responder was built to inspect the largest pipes in the toughest conditions. Navigation in pipes is relatively easy but they may be littered with debris and have various levels of sewage flow, making locomotion difficult.”It was a quest to send a robot where no robot had gone before,” says Redzone’s CEO Mike Lach.”Waste water is a perfect application for robotics: dirty, dull and dangerous.”

Smaller pipes can be inspected manually using a remote control vehicle with a camera attached but this is inefficient, time-consuming and impossible for many pipes. Redzone’s robots can be dropped into one manhole and find their way to the next one for collection. They carry cameras, laser, lidar (light detection and ranging), sonar (for detection below the flow line) and hydrogen sulphide gas sensors. Hydrogen sulphide can corrode pipes. A combination of data from all of the sensors is used to build a model of the pipe’s interior and identify, for example, which pipes have the most corrosion.

“Money is tight. You are dealing with public funds,” Lach explains. “How do you get the data you need to make decisions and even if you can get that data is it good enough? Do you replace pipes? Refurbish them? Replace them?” These are the kinds of questions answered by Redzone’s analytics platform.

In many cities, the first task is simply to map the waste water system and its state of repair using the robot inspectors. For larger pipes, the cost of inspection is similar to existing methods but the data acquired is much more rich. Inspection of smaller pipes is cheaper and quicker than the alternatives. An assessment that might otherwise take 15 years can be completed in one.

Fast, fearless and happy to do the dirty work. What more could you want from a robot? “The autonomy of our robots keeps people safe,” concludes Lach.
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