Robots could map the future of St. Petersburg's sewers

Image 1 of 3

Robots may soon take over St. Petersburg's sewer system if the city approves using them to help fix its troubled sewage pipes.

Right now, city workers use roving cameras on closed-circuit televisions to view and inspect the city's aging sewer pipes.

"You'll have two operators on a truck, and you'll have two operators on the hydraulic cleaning truck. That's four people tied up on a section of line," said John Stanton, the wastewater collections supervisor.

St. Petersburg City Council is considering a $600,000 contract with RedZone Robotics, a Pennsylvania company specializing in autonomous robots programmed to capture images of a city's sewer system.

The robots are programmed to follow a route, and the camera records images that are then processed through computer software and ranked on a scale to determine the severity of the pipe repairs.

The robots can pinpoint problems more quickly with 360-degree views, which the current cameras don't have.

"I can't one way or the other if it will catch more or won't. I can guarantee you it's going to do it more efficiently and more effectively," said Lisa Rhea, the senior waters resources manager over the wastewater system.

Rhea said the city had challenges with sewer overflows a few years ago, so they did a trial run with RedZone last fall and the robots cover four times more ground than what the city can cover now. 

"We get 1,500 to 2,500 feet a day, and they get 7,500 to 10,000 feet a day," said Stanton.

It takes just 10 minutes to drop off the robot and 10 minutes to pick up, significantly cutting down on the amount of time and manpower currently needed.

"So the impact for the residents is much less because you don't have that disruption to the traffic pattern that you would have with the trucks," said Rhea.

City workers plan to use them in neighborhoods with the worst leaks to get a better look at how best to serve local residents.

"If we get the inspections done quickly, then we can identify where the problems are more quickly and spend our time and our resources repairing the problems," Rhea said.

St. Petersburg City Council will decide on the RedZone contract on August 15. This time around, the robots would only look at one-fifth of the city's pipes, about 750,000 feet of pipe. If all goes well, Rhea said water resources department will want to renew the contract to use the robots across the city's sewers.

St. Petersburg would not be the first city to use the robots underground. Rhea said Palm Harbor and Winter Garden city workers have also use the robots in the sewer systems.