The robots are here.
Armed with new technology and purpose, they've have been making their way through Boulder — right under our feet.
But these robots aren't the villains in a new sci-fi movie. In fact, they're doing important work in Boulder as the city continues to assess the damage from the massive September flooding ahead of this spring's runoff.
During the flood, the filters and pipes leading to the city's wastewater treatment plant were hit with rocks and debris carried by floodwaters. The city every year inspects the main sewer lines leading to the plant, but Boulder officials were especially concerned this year.
"We always do routine inspection, but, because of the flood, we accelerated things," said Pieter Beyer, a civil engineer with the city's public works department. "We wanted to look at our critical long lines before spring runoff."
So the city contracted RedZone Robotics — a wastewater and sewer inspection company based out of Pittsburgh, Pa. — to inspect more than 30,000 feet of pipeline for debris and damage.
RedZone Robotics is using two different unmanned raft robots to examine the pipes. Like robots the city has used before, both robots use cameras to give crews a visual view of the pipelines. But these new robots also have sonar and laser capabilities, giving the city much more detailed information about the water lines.
While Boulder long has used unmanned rafts with cameras, the ability to take sonar images and laser readings was previously not something the city could afford. But with aging pipes and possible flood damage, city officials decided to spend $175,000 to contract RedZone.
"It's pretty exciting we got the opportunity to bring in this technology," Beyer said.
On Tuesday morning, the RedZone crew stood around an opened manhole cover near the East Boulder Recreation Center off 55th Street and prepared to lower the robot into the pipeline to begin some of their final inspections.
Andy Zachodni, of RedZone, said the company started inspecting the city's pipelines a week ago, and, by Tuesday, had more than 29,000 feet of pipeline inspected. Zachodni said he hoped to have the inspection completed today.
Once the robot is lowered into the pipe, a shoot tied to it pulls the raft along the water line as a line from a RedZone truck anchors it — or, in the case of lower-flow areas such as the 55th Street location, crews float the line from the truck and then pull the raft through the pipes.
As the raft makes its way through the pipe, the RedZone crew follows it from manhole to manhole, making sure the robot is transmitting data and hasn't flipped over in the sewers.
Zachodni said that in addition to the camera feed, the unmanned raft is equipped with sonar to detect objects below the surface of the water as well as a laser to measure the layout of the pipe to help examine the structural integrity of the pipeline.
"The laser gives you a real nice profile of your pipeline," Zachodni said.
The raw data collected from the robot is then transmitted to Pittsburgh, and will be presented to Boulder in about a month in a more "user-friendly" format.
Beyer said once the city has that data, it can determine what work still needs to be done in advance of any spring runoff.
"We'll review that data and then see if we need to either make repairs or do any follow up cleaning," Beyer said.