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Using technology for a higher purpose

Robot invented at MIT tests sewer water samples to track diseases, habits of city residents

Andrew Topf, Editor
Andrew Topf, Editor

The technologies for inspecting sewer, storm water and watermain pipes are well established and get deployed with confidence by municipalities across Canada when it comes to pipeline rehabilitation or replacement work.

The advances in such technologies have played a key role in the ability to effectively rehabilitate underground infrastructure including manholes, mains and laterals. A major breakthrough came with the introduction of CCTV cameras mounted on miniature tractors that could move through pipelines. Images from the remote-controlled tractors could then be broadcast from contractor to municipality without ever needing to put a man into the pipe.

More recent technologies such as fisheye, panoramic and zoom cameras, along with sonar and laser capabilities, provide city engineers with very detailed information from which to design a rehabilitation strategy.

In underground infrastructure, robotics have been developed for applications that would be surprising to those outside the industry. A couple of the more interesting examples are ROVs that can “swim” through underwater tunnels to do inspections and robots that can move along sewer pipes laying fibre-optic cables.

It will come as no surprise to those who work in underground construction to learn that a robot has been developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to collect sewer water samples and test them for human diseases.

Known as “Luigi”, the tube-shaped robot is lowered into the sewer pipe. Then, controlled by a smartphone app, a small pump sucks up the untreated sewage liquid and runs it through a filter. According to CBC News, which published a story on Luigi and the “Underworlds” project run through MIT, around 50,000 types of bacteria and viruses can be detected from the samples. The data is a rich source of information for researchers, who can use it to understand more about residents’ health and habits. For example Boston used data from Luigi and its predecessor, Mario, to identify neighbourhoods where heroin use is increasing. In Kuwait City, the robot was used to measure salt intake among residents, whose sodium levels are among the world’s highest.

Ultimately, researchers could even use the information to identify and potentially head off dangerous viral outbreaks such as Ebola.

While cameras and robotics used in underground construction do not convey information to be used for such a higher social purpose, it is important to note that our industry is the first mover of such technology. Indeed without the R&D used to invent inspection cameras, ROVs and other underground robotics, it is unlikely that Mario and Luigi would have been engineered.

Inspection and condition assessment applications are continually evolving. In this edition, check out stories on pages 8 and 12 for recent examples in Montreal and Saskatoon, and read our feature on page 11 for tips on picking an inspection crawler that’s right for your needs.

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