Macomb Co. using drone, AI for sewer inspections

St. Clair Shores – Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller announced Monday that her office is using a drone and artificial intelligence to better inspect sewer lines and save money.

“This is the new wave,” Miller said at a 10 a.m. news conference held at the county's Chapaton Pump Station on Nine Mile at Jefferson Avenue in St. Clair Shores. “This is going to be a big game-changer. We're very excited to be able to take advantage of it.”

She also said she believes her office is the first of its kind in Michigan to use a combination of drone and artificial intelligence (AI) to inspect sewers.

“I don't know of anyone else in Michigan that has the software and drone that we use,” Miller said. “But I would venture to guess that by the end of the year there will be a lot more people doing it.”

Some of her staff accompanied the Commissioner at the conference. They spoke about how they use the technology to inspect sewers and gave a short drone flight demonstration to the media.

Miller said her team of inspectors uses a special drone to fly through the county's major sewers to capture video footage of their inner workings. The drain pipes, which lie about 65 feet underground, can be between 12 and 15 feet high.

Vincent Astorino, operations manager of the district's public works department, said the specially equipped inspection drone was made by a Swiss technology company called Flybotix. It has a diameter of about 40 centimeters, is equipped with LED lights and a protective cage with high-resolution video cameras.

They then pass the footage on to the AI ​​system, which analyzes it and looks for defects and problem areas. It then makes recommendations to the engineers about the problems it finds and helps with prioritization. The software is developed by SewerAI, a company based in Walnut Creek, California.

Miller pointed to the collapse of the Oakland-Macomb Interceptor in Fraser in 2016 as an example of why regular inspections of the county's underground infrastructure are needed.

“Everyone has an aging infrastructure underground that needs a lot of attention,” she said. “And information is power.”

On Christmas Eve of that year, the tower's collapse caused a massive sinkhole on 15 Mile, prompting authorities to evacuate 23 homes, declare three homes dilapidated, demolish two of them, and file a lawsuit against the developers who caused the collapse.

The sewer line serves 850,000 residents in 25 communities in Macomb and Oakland counties.

Miller said her office purchased the drone and use of SewerAI's software for less than $100,000. She added that no new staff would need to be hired to operate the drone or use the software.

Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller explains how her office is using this drone and artificial intelligence to inspect underground infrastructure during a press conference at the Chapaton Pumping Station in St. Clair Shores on Monday, May 20, 2024.

Astorino said inspectors would take the drone to the site, lower it through a manhole cover into a sewer and the operator would fly it through the pipe. He said the drone's battery lasts about 24 minutes and inspectors have several batteries.

In the past, it could take months or even years to analyze video inspections of sewer lines to find problems that needed to be fixed. Astorino said the drone video and AI cut that time down to just 24 hours.

The commissioner estimates the system will save the county millions and provide county engineers with better information about infrastructure. In the past, millions have been spent on inspections that have been time- and labor-intensive, she said.

“I know there are big reservations about some applications of AI, which I can understand,” Miller said. “But in this case, AI and technology are our friends. They can be used very, very effectively. This is how you can use technology for the greater good.”

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