News Feature | March 29, 2017

Databotics: The Future Of Pipeline Maintenance?

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,
@sarmje

robot.reg

Some industry observers say the future of clean water depends on the convergence of several high-tech industries in a field known as “databotics.”

Databotics is a combination of artificial intelligence, Big Data, and robotics, according to Fast Company. It may play a crucial role in helping municipalities upgrade aging infrastructure. Proponents say it could save U.S. water interests $400 million per year.

Robotics companies already play a crucial role in helping gas companies replace pipes, but water utilities have been slower to contract with them, according to Fast Company. Robotics companies can create pipe-inspection systems that make utilities more efficient at replacing old pipes.

HiBot USA is one company in this space. Based in San Jose, CA, it is a spinoff of HiBot, a Japanese company, the report said. HiBot USA is already working with municipal water utilities near San Francisco.

“The American offshoot was created a year and a half ago to commercialize the parent company’s technology, particularly its pipe-inspection robot,” the report said.

"Its databotics system was designed to algorithmically figure out the areas in a town or city where pipes are more at risk of failure, thanks to the inspection of pipes that have already been replaced and an evaluation of soil dynamics, as well as other factors such as electromagnetic forces coming from power lines,” the report said.

After a robot inspects a pipe, Big Data comes into play.

“By looking at a utility’s entire collection of data and comparing the existing rating system to maps that include national data on soil characteristics — because soil can be a key indicator of corrosion — the company believes it can come up with better predictions of where pipe failures are likely to occur than to just rely on age and leak histories. Especially when artificial intelligence is added to the mix,” the report said.

Lars Stenstedt, HiBot USA’s vice president of business development, explained what the company’s technology has to offer.

“Even as municipalities undertake their pipe replacement projects, they ignore the fact that at least 40 percent of the existing network can probably be saved. And that means there’s potentially $400 million or more of savings available, if replacement could be done more efficiently, and only as needed,” the report said, citing Stenstedt.

“The best way to know what’s going on inside the pipe is to go inside,” says Takashi Kato, the CEO of HiBot USA.

What do the systems look like?

“The robots themselves are small, with three sections that articulate much like some multi-section city buses. They are designed to expand to the size of the pipe so that wheels touch the insides, making it easier to insert them and (even more importantly) to extract them. The robot has a camera in the front, and tows an RFT magnetic sensor that allows the HiBot USA team to measure the amount of material loss in the pipe,” the report said.

The technology speaks the language of water utilities.

“Water utilities tend to use a rating system, from A to F, for piping, based on leak and age history, and use those ratings to make replacement decisions. HiBot USA’s process is to look at pipe and determine whether the rating was correct,” the report said.

The backdrop is that the U.S. is facing a water infrastructure crisis and it remains unclear how municipalities and cities will muster up funding to replace their aging water pipes.

The U.S. received an overall grade of “D+” on the infrastructure report card issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Wastewater and drinking water infrastructure scored a “D+” and a “D,” respectively.

Over 240,000 water mains break in the U.S. each year, according to the society.

To read more about main breaks visit Water Online’s Solutions And Insight For Water Loss Prevention.

Image credit:"Mr Robot," Mark Wilson © 2013, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/