The Fibre Frontier: Sewer Robots Go Where Workers Cannot
It is highly unusual for an underground infrastructure company to say their roots can be traced to one of the most important events in modern history, but that event is an integral part of the story behind Ca-Botics Fiber Systems Inc.
We are speaking, here, of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In 1990, following the reunification of Germany, the new German government decided that part of the solution to bringing East and West Berlin together, was to join the underground utilities, which had previously been divided by the Berlin Wall.
A robot in the pipes
But recognizing the amount of unexploded ordinances buried underneath the city, and “deep secrets” harboured by Nazi Germany, the pertinent government authorities decided it would be better not to excavate. Instead, their solution was to use robots to lay the utilities, by employing technology first introduced by the Japanese. The world’s first “sewer robot” was called STAR, which stands for Sewage Telecommunication Access for Robots.
Fast-forward several years, and the STAR story moves to the United States, where Jack Conie, a pipeline rehab veteran, saw the sewer robots on display at a trade show and saw an opportunity to transfer the technology to North America.
Conie, the president of Ca-Botics, acquired the rights for STAR about 12 years ago, and since then, Ca-Botics has been working with municipalities worldwide to install fibre-optic cables in sewer tunnels.
The hair-like strands made of glass, encased in a hard plastic casing, are the solution to carrying the massive amounts of data required by home-owners and businesses that have come to rely on high-speed, unimpeded Internet access.
Telecoms and municipalities, particularly large cities, are increasingly replacing copper-based telecommunications lines with fibre-optic cables to meet the explosive growth in Internet traffic.
The big dilemma for those cities? How to install kilometres of fibre-optic cable without creating huge disruptions and traffic chaos?
How the STAR system works
With STAR, no excavation is required, since the remote-controlled robot is brought in through manholes. The first step is to clean the pipe along the route to be travelled by the robot. After that, barring any defects in the pipe, the robot attaches the cable to the crown of the pipe, then gradually moves up the pipe, fastening it with anchors that do not penetrate through the pipe. The unit is remote-controlled from an operator above-ground. It can work in regular flow conditions without need for a bypass, in pipe diameters up to 48 inches (1,200 mm).
One robot is able to install a minimum of 300,000 metres (300 kms) of fibre optic cable per year, working a regular single eight hour shift per day.
All types of pipe materials are supported with the system, including clay, concrete, steel, asbestos cement, PVC, polyethylene and clay brick.
Conie said the beauty of the STAR system for municipalities is its low impact. Without having to dig up roads and expose underground features, big savings are realized.
“Typically what you find is monetary savings of one-third or two-thirds of the cost of a traditional build. There are significant savings right up front,” said Conie, speaking to CUI from the company’s headquarters in Galloway, Ohio. “The other thing is the speed of deployment, it’s typically about eight to 10 times faster to deploy using STAR versus traditional construction methods.”
A city also has to take into account the long-term effects of open-cut construction, from a maintenance perspective.
“Once you cut asphalt or pavement, it’s never going to last as long or be maintenance-free like a new pavement job is,” says Conie, adding that with the sewer robot, the cost to maintain fibre-optic cable is significantly decreased. “Because being placed in a sewer pipe, it’s the safest, deepestinfrastructure.”
If there is a problem with the sewer pipe, such as a break or collapse, and the Internet provider needs to get into the sewer to repair the fibre-optics, Ca-Botics plans for that by spooling extra cable inside each manhole. “It gives us the ability
to splice and put that back together again, and then re-attach it in the pipe,” says Conie.
Sewer robots from Ca-Botics have successfully installed fibre-optics in some of the world’s major cities, including Paris, Berlin, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Toronto.
The units themselves – Ca-Botics has four in North America and four in Europe – are extremely high-tech, with the prototype taking three years to design and build from start to finish. They are also expensive, with each unit having a list price of 1.3 million euros.
For most installations, the labour requirements for the operation of a single STAR unit are a Ca-Botics-trained threeman crew consisting of a foreman, operator and labourer.
The robot has five cameras that monitor the position of the cable and the various functions of the device. The units have the flexibility to work in different pipe sizes and include a gas detector for high-methane, explosive environments. “It’s a very robust system,” says Conie.
“Municipalities interested in utilizing sewer robots to lay fibre optics have a number of ways of working with Ca-Botics,” explained Afshin Hamed, vice president of STAR Canada, the Calgary-based company that owns the exclusive rights to Ca-Botics Fiber Systems in Canada. “Often a telecommunications company will contract with Ca-Botics or hire a local contractor to purchase the equipment and deploy the fibre, working with the municipality. Or the city might choose to do all the work themselves, as happened with the City of Dublin.”
The current drive to install more fibreoptic networks is likely to continue, especially in North America where the U.S. and Canadian economies keep improving. Conie said the company is getting more enquiries than when they started in 2001.
“We have a few research groups that are considering us as one of their biggest candidates with the advantage that we have over other conventional networks. It’s looking good,” said Conie. “We have some of the bigger cities in Canada that are looking at us right now.”