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RedZone robots patrol Shaler sewer pipes | TribLIVE.com
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RedZone robots patrol Shaler sewer pipes

Tribune-Review
| Thursday, June 11, 2009 12:00 p.m

Deep below the surface of Shaler’s roads, four little robots boldly go where no person has gone before — sewer pipes.

The robots are part of a team of autonomous machines developed by RedZone Robotics of Lawrenceville to inspect and take 360-degree videos of sewer pipes.

RedZone was founded by a Carnegie Mellon University professor in 1987 as an organization designed to create robots that would perform tasks in hazardous environments. The company has since evolved to focus on municipal needs, such as sewer inspections.

“Our goal was to inspect small pipes as quickly and efficiently as possible,” said Philip Johns, RedZone’s director of marketing and product management.

The video unearths roots, blockages and cracks in pipes, allowing Shaler to prioritize maintenance.

“A lot of municipalities in the past waited for a problem to happen,” Johns said. “That’s very expensive.”

Here’s how the inspection works: A 20-pound robot is lowered into a manhole and programmed to begin. The robot takes off and travels down a pipe until it senses it has reached the next manhole then returns. Another robot is lowered and sent in the opposite direction.

The robots resemble a long brick with one eye at the end. They are attached to a string, which acts as a safety feature if the robot needs to pull itself out of trouble. The robots have internal sensors that monitor their stability in the pipe.

“They look simple on the outside, but it was a lot of hard work to get them where they are today,” Johns said.

Shaler and all of the municipalities served by the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN) are required to clean their sewer systems by May 2010.

RedZone’s robots make this process easier and cheaper. Robinson Pipe Cleaning has cleaned the majority of the sewer pipes in Shaler. Four robots running simultaneously in Shaler were able to collect 33,000 feet of video in two weeks. Shaler has 87 miles of pipe.

Kevin Creagh, a township engineer, said the robots do have their limitations. They can only be used in smaller sewer pipes, which must be relatively clean. The robots lack a root-cutting component — though human operators are able to clear pipes immediately of any blockages.

RedZone still is testing its robots and recently finished work for McCandless, West Homestead and the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. RedZone anticipates its robots will be made available for commercial sale or lease to municipalities by October.

“As of right now, it definitely seems to be a technology that we would consider,” said Kevin Creagh, an engineer for Shaler.

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