Floating Robot Helps Arlington Examine Underground Sewer Pipes, Identify Potential Problems

A new robot exploring miles of Arlington’s underground sanitary sewer lines is outfitted with high-tech sensors designed to detect structural flaws and obstructions before they create expensive problems for the City.

Fortunately, the nearly $500,000 device doesn’t also have a sense of smell.

On Monday, Arlington Water Utilities engineers and UTA Civil Engineering Department researchers began training on how to use the MSI HD Profiler, a floating robot equipped with a high-definition video camera, laser and sonar sensors to analyze the interior conditions of large-diameter sewer pipes. The project, being done in collaboration with the University of Texas at Arlington, will help the City of Arlington Water Utilities Department evaluate 48 miles of sewer pipe over the next three years and prioritize which sections should be repaired or replaced first.

“This data will help the City predict potential problems and make pre-emptive repairs at a lower cost and less impact to residents than waiting for a catastrophic failure,” Arlington Water Utilities Director Buzz Pishkur said.

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The robot’s first task Monday was to evaluate 2,500 feet of 54-inch sanitary sewer line buried beneath a Texas Rangers parking lot in the Entertainment District.

Crews carefully lowered the 50-pound robot, built by Red Zone Robotics, into the sewer through a manhole. Up on the surface, Water Utilities engineers used a lap top to review video footage and laser and sonar reports collected as the floating device was pulled through the dark pipe by a cable.

In 2009, Salt Lake City became the first United States city to use the synchronized, multi-sensor technology, which was designed in Auckland, New Zealand, said Tim Renton, General Manager of Red Zone Robotic’s Auckland office.

The MSI HD Profiler’s high-definition camera and laser identifies issues such as cracks or thinning pipe walls, which can lead to catastrophic failures like street collapses or sewage leaks. Sonar beneath the floating robot collects data about conditions below the water line, such as debris or sediment build up.

“Debris can shrink the capacity of the line, which can lead to overflows. You want to keep the lines as clear of sediment as possible and this can let the cities know they need to flush the lines,” Renton said.

The data can help Arlington save money by identifying specific sections of damaged or weak pipe that needs to be repaired or replaced. This is less expensive than replacing entire lengths of sewer line that may still have decades of useful lifespan left, Pishkur said.

Ali Abolmaali, UTA civil engineering chair and professor, is leading the university’s portion of the project. He and his team will evaluate the City’s pipes over the next three years.

“When these pipes fail, they bring down roadways, they cause serious problems,” Dr. Abolmaali said. “This is a proactive measure to prevent a catastrophic failure. It’s just like an annual checkup. What you are basically doing is going in there, finding area problems, cutting out samples and taking them into the lab for health analysis.”

Using the data obtained, we will be able to predict the remaining service life of the pipelines, said Abolmaali, a recognized authority in sustainable infrastructure and pipeline.

Abolmaali has already developed two new international standards for synthetic fiber and steel fiber-reinforced concrete culverts, storm drains and sewer pipe.

His team’s research will include comparing how the different types of sewer pipe perform while in service to how they performed when brand new. This data could help predict the pipe’s lifespan and lead to recommendations to pipe manufacturers about improvements that could make their products more sustainable.

“This is cutting-edge research, which will lead to sustainable infrastructure and eventually have global impact,” Abolmaali said.

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