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Pittsburgh Robots Get Trial To Inspect City Sewers

Courtesy RedZone Robotics

Robots are everywhere nowadays: playing Scrabble, entering disaster zones, even gambling. Now they’re also inspecting city sewers.

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority teamed with RedZone Robotics to use robots to examine Pittsburgh’s sewage lines.

Dubbed "RedZone Solo," the robot can move on its own without close monitoring of its progress as it rolls through the lines, allowing PWSA crews to inspect the sewage line more quickly. Prior to its rollout, PWSA crews would sit in a vehicle and use a closed circuit television unit to monitor inspection devices lowered through the sewers. 

“Really it looks like a little tank with a camera on it," said Jim Good, PWSA executive director. "They introduce it into the sewer through the manhole, and then it progresses down the sewer line and inspects it while it’s going.”

The robot rolls from pipe to pipe until it’s programmed to stop, usually at the next manhole, Good said. Though the PWSA is hiring RedZone employees to insert the robots into the sewers, they will still have crews working on other inspections, especially the lines with diameters larger than 12 inches, which is the robot’s limit.

The biggest benefit of this robot is its speed, Good said.

“They will do approximately 17 miles from beginning to end – that means inspection and coding – in six to eight weeks, the same amount of footage that it takes our crew about three to four months to do,” he said.

RedZone Robotics is a Lawrenceville-based company spun out of Carnegie Mellon University that develops robotic technology for water and wastewater management companies to better evaluate data at a relatively low cost.

The PWSA is required to inspect all its sewer lines by a Consent Order and Agreement from the state Department of Environmental Protection. They’ve completed inspections of all lines deemed critical, but still have many non-critical inspections remaining.

PWSA is responsible for these inspections, maintaining water lines and developing green infrastructure. Good said he hopes the RedZone partnership will help tackle some of these “conflicting demands.”

“We have things that we need to do and a limited source of funds so we thought this might be a way to supplement what our existing crews are doing and get the inspections done more quickly,” he said.

Robotic inspections began Monday in Beechview and Brookline. PWSA will assess how the inspections went after the initial eight-week trial and decide from there if it will use the robots again going forward.

“We expect it to go well," he said. "RedZone is a company that’s used its technology all over the country and it’s proven itself, but who knows? There may be complications that arise that we haven’t anticipated. In any case, when we’re done, we will do a thorough assessment and see what’s next.”