Digital Twins Improve Sewer System Inspections | Winter 2024

Many utility owners find it difficult to get a comprehensive overview of their sewer networks. This is because they often only have access to static documents that provide no context about the condition of their pipes or the location of the pipes in the network.

National engineering firm and Esri partner Burgess & Niple (B&N) has developed a dynamic tool in ArcGIS that, when combined with the company's artificial intelligence (AI)-based pipe inspection app, creates a digital twin of a utility's entire wastewater system. The result is that utilities gain a complete view of their networks as well as access to inspection videos and images. This allows utilities to make data-driven decisions about their pipes, including when and where to invest in rehabilitating or replacing assets.

PipeAId helps utilities process closed circuit television (CCTV) video and assign observation codes to pipe sections that need repair or replacement.

The city of Newburgh, Indiana recently used B&N's AI software platform called PipeAId to help with the annual inspection and cleaning of its plumbing collection system. In addition to saving staff time and capital, the digital twin helps Newburgh's sewer department improve its pipe inspection processes.

Accurate observations and unbiased reviews

To inspect sewer pipes, inspectors can send closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras through the pipes to record the condition of the pipes. Inspectors typically document their observations on-site and again while performing quality assurance/quality control (QA/QC) of the video in the office. They use codes from the Pipeline Assessment Certification Program established by the National Association of Sewer Service Companies (NASSCO) to standardize their observations. There are more than 230 NASSCO observation codes to choose from, often paired with additional data.

Despite this drive for standardization, observation accuracy remains a problem. Human subjectivity can also be a problem. For example, inspectors must distinguish between cracks, breaks and breaks; Determine the severity of root interference. detect whether a faucet is defective; and address other issues. An experienced inspector is more likely to accurately document these observations than someone new to the job.

PipeAId is designed to help utilities process their CCTV videos more accurately and less subjectively than manual processes. It examines the video and extracts data on sewer pipe blockages such as cracks, roots and faucets. If there is an error, PipeAId maps the location where the error was recorded in a computer vision and machine learning environment, and the AI ​​model determines which NASSCO error code applies.

All of this inspection data – along with supporting images and videos – is delivered to utilities via a digital twin in a desktop ArcGIS environment such as ArcGIS Pro. To achieve this, when working with a customer, B&N's development team leverages the geoprocessing tools in ArcGIS Pro to create a geodatabase of the customer's channel conditions. Relevant images (stored in a geodatabase) and videos (stored in the cloud) are linked to each observation and pipe segment. When all observation data is paired with B&N's data hosting solution, utility employees and contractors can access inspection information in the office or outside with just a few clicks or taps on their devices.

PipeAId is designed as an out-of-the-box solution for ArcGIS users, so utility operators don't necessarily need to invest in new software. Instead, they can leverage their own GIS deployments without relying on other third-party software to store data. B&N can also deploy the solution with Esri's AEC Project Delivery subscription service to tailor the data to customers' individual needs while preparing them for future growth.

Increased transparency for Newburgh

In Newburgh, employees of the city's wastewater department annually inspect and clean portions of the wastewater collection system. In 2023, they used PipeAId for the first time to process inspection data for 40,000 linear feet of the city's pipes. This allowed staff to obtain an unbiased condition assessment of the city's buried assets, thereby maximizing the life of their pipes and either rehabilitating or replacing them before failure occurs.

In addition, staff used the digital twin generated by PipeAId, which can be integrated into the city's GIS to display the size, material, inspection date and condition of the pipes, as well as the location of each observation and defect. This ensures a high level of transparency about the condition of each pipe and provides city wastewater department leaders with reliable information to make data-driven decisions about Newburgh's pipe maintenance strategies. Having all of this information available on maps – even on mobile devices – also helps mobile workers facilitate conversations with residents and better inform stakeholders about the city’s proactive pipe maintenance program.

“This AI system takes our sewer pipe evaluation program to the next level and we look forward to a far more efficient and cost-effective sewer inspection process,” said Steve Shoemaker, City of Newburgh Wastewater Commissioner. “By taking the CCTV data we already collect and translating it into a more useful format, we are making the utility’s efforts more valuable and providing a high level of service to our customers.”

Keep community members and stakeholders informed

Using GIS to design a digital twin of a wastewater system, complete with easy-to-understand maps and dashboards, is helpful when utility staff need to explain complex wastewater system issues to community members and stakeholders, as staff did in Newburgh. People get a big-picture view of their area's wastewater systems as well as highly detailed information that shows how utility owners make informed decisions about which pipes need to be rehabilitated and replaced and when.

“GIS has the ability to put thousands of pieces of information into a usable format, allowing utilities to use the information they already have to perform cost-effective maintenance,” concluded Brenton Hasenour, B&N water and wastewater division manager for the Evansville company , Indiana, Office.

About the authors

Josh Ford

Josh Ford, an engineer at Burgess & Niple (B&N), led the development of the company's artificial intelligence (AI) technology, PipeAId. For 17 years, Ford has been involved in all phases of sewer assessment studies, including oversight of contractors during cleaning and inspection and quality assurance/quality control (QA/QC) of closed circuit television (CCTV) systems.

Kris Popovich

Kris Popovich, who specializes in GIS and cartography, is the lead geospatial scientist at Burgess & Niple (B&N). His experience ranges from transportation planning and bridge inspections to utility infrastructure and environmental reporting.

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