Pipe-Crawling Drones Are Going Where No Human Can or Wants to

How a Canadian company is helping to protect cities' underground arteries.

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Aug 28 2018, 2:22pm

Image: Deep Trekker

Last year was a record-setting year for skyward development. Around the world, 144 buildings were completed that were over 200 metres high, more than any other year in history. As hyper-dense urban environments fill in skylines, they need to be supported by increasingly complex subterranean infrastructure—electrical, sewers, subways, etc. Now, some technology companies are looking below the earth for areas of innovation.

Singapore is preparing to release plans for an underground city next year, for example, while London’s underground Crossrail project is Europe’s largest construction project ever. In Canada, Kitchener, Ontario’s Deep Trekker is working to solve the increasingly complicated underground maintenance cycles of modern cities using another, flashier technology: robots.

With so much depending on the infrastructure systems below cities, many municipalities have enforced strict maintenance schedules and requirements. In the case of sewers and water pipes, for example, contractors and public works send trained inspectors down into larger sewer and drainage pipes to conduct visual inspections and ensure that pipes are up to code. However, in the past, pipes too small for a person to squeeze down were likely not being inspected or required using cumbersome remote inspection tools. Not only was this a slow process, it was expensive.

That’s where Deep Trekker’s Pipe Crawler comes in. These remote-controlled inspection vehicles can operate for six to eight hours on a single battery charge and do not require a burdensome connection to an above ground truck for power. Pipe crawlers are able to navigate uneven terrain and are fully submersible to a depth of 50 meters. On-board camera systems allow teams to remotely inspect pipes more efficiently and at a fraction of the cost of standard inspection vehicles. These inspection cameras are some of the first of their kind in the world due to their extended battery life and more affordable price point. Once a problem is discovered, the teams can mark the spot and return for repair.

Deep Trekker’s head of engineering and operations, Sean Phillips, says the reality of the urban underground is that it will always require semi-frequent inspection. Phillips stops short of saying Deep Trekker’s pipes crawlers are the way of the future for all cities around the globe, but he does believe that their technology helps enable contractors and municipalities to keep up with inspections and maintenance more easily and cost effectively in comparison with competing inspection devices. So far, Deep Trekker has done business in over 80 countries.

Maintaining our underground pipe systems is more important now than ever.

Read More: The Next Frontier to Be Mapped Lies Underground

Andrew Ferguson, a Civil Technician with Canadian consulting firm Associated Engineering, has spent his career working on civil linear infrastructure—specifically, pipelines. He says that the effects of climate change are being felt more and more each year and there is almost nowhere that this is more evident than with our pipe and drainage systems. Take flooding events in Toronto, France, and Japan as recent examples.

“We classify these major rainfall events as one-, five-, ten-, 50-, and 100-year events. A 50-year event should happen every 50 years.” Unfortunately, according to Ferguson, our increasingly volatile climate has led to these 50- and 100-year events occurring every one or two years. “Not only does this put repeated stress on our infrastructure, but it does not give us enough time to repair and recover.”

In addition to extreme weather patterns, our cities are aging. Most non-concrete pipe systems have an expected lifespan of 50-80 years, depending on the materials used. As many urban centres experienced massive growth following the second world war, these vital underground arteries are now reaching maturity across North America. In fact, the Flint water contamination crisis can be traced back to aging lead pipes. Better inspection tools won’t solve such fraught issues themselves, robots or not, but they can be part of a solution.

Municipal maintenance isn’t the only sector turning to robots. A large number of oil pipelines in Canada are small-diameter pipes that can’t be easily inspected; indeed, some never have been. The industry is turning now turning to robots to inspect these lines in the hopes of preventing an environmental disaster. Whether it’s keeping a city running or oil flowing, robots can go where people can’t.

For this very reason, the future of inspections is likely to continue to turn towards solutions like the Deep Trekker Pipe Crawlers. Their cost and ease of use has made them a viable solution for early-adopting municipalities around the world as well as private corporations in oil and energy, underwater discovery, commercial salvage, and marine survey industries.