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Robots vs. Fatbergs: High-Tech Approaches to America’s Sewer Problem

Christopher Mims, The Wall Street Journal on November 13, 2021

Snaking beneath our feet, all across America, are hundreds of thousands of miles of dark, dank tunnels. These channels for wastewater and storm water are, according to those who explore them for a living, home to all manner of hazards, including creatures (rats and alligators), obstructions ("fatbergs" and mineral deposits), and poison gasses concentrated enough to eat through concrete.

Keeping those aging, subterranean arteries from spilling their toxic contents is enormously complicated and costs tens of billions of dollars a year more than U.S. cities can afford to pay. Which is why cities and the service contractors they rely on are deploying an array of technological tools that boast the potential to explore, diagnose and repair sewer systems in new and more affordable ways.

The arsenal includes flying drones, crawling robots and remote-controlled swimming machines. They are armed with cameras, sonar, lasers and other sensors, and in some cases with tools to remove obstructions, using water-jet cutters capable of slicing through concrete, tree roots, and the giant agglomerations of grease and personal-hygiene products known as fatbergs. Some can also fix leaking pipes using plastics that cure via ultraviolet light.

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