Underground drone, AI speeds up Macomb County pipe inspections – Macomb Daily

Macomb County Public Services employee Zach Heaton operates a caged drone that is deployed 60 to 70 feet underground to inspect miles of water and sewer pipes in the county. JAMESON COOK – THE MACOMB DAILY

Public service officials in Macomb County are using the latest technology to detect defects in underground pipes much faster than before, saving money and virtually guaranteeing that a pipe will not burst.

Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller and other officials on her staff met at the Chapaton Pump Station in St. Clair Shores on Monday to demonstrate how the department is using flying and floating equipment to conduct inspections with enhanced video quality and then applying artificial intelligence to assess the quality of water and sewer pipes throughout the county.

In the past, the building department hired vendors to conduct video inspections and then had engineers view them to manually identify deficiencies. It was a subjective process that took months or even years, says Vincent Astorino, operations and process manager.

The new process delivers data within a few days.

“This has accelerated the whole thing dramatically,” said Astorino. “Compared to what we were doing before, it's incredible.”

Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller, accompanied by operations and flow manager Vincent Astorino, holds up a caged drone during a news conference at the Chapaton Pump Station in St. Clair Shores on Monday. The drone will be used to video record underground pipelines, which will then be inspected using newly acquired artificial intelligence. JAMESON COOK – THE MACOMB DAILYMacomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller, accompanied by operations and flow manager Vincent Astorino, holds up a caged drone during a news conference at the Chapaton Pump Station in St. Clair Shores on Monday. The drone will be used to video record underground pipelines, which will then be inspected using newly acquired artificial intelligence.JAMESON COOK – THE MACOMB DAILY

“Now we can conduct inspections wherever and whenever we want, and we have accurate and up-to-date information,” Miller said.

Without the human factor, the information is more consistent, Astorino added.

The total cost of the Flybotix drone and SewerAI software is $100,000, which pales in comparison to the cost of the previous process, which was hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, officials said.

The drone, which is equipped with a camera and lights and first began operating late last year, is operated by employee Zach Heaton, who has been with the company for six years and has been trained to operate it. Heaton, wearing a hat with his nickname “Captain Zack,” demonstrated the device on Monday, hovering it several meters above the ground in the station.

“It's cool, it's interesting, it's fun,” said Heaton, also a gas station operator in Chapaton. “It's a good skill to learn.”

At the site, Heaton lowers the drone into a 60- to 70-foot-long shaft and a 4- to 12-foot-diameter pipe, piloting it through about 1,000 feet of pipe at a time before the battery runs out in about 25 minutes, officials said. Heaton and his crew can inspect thousands of feet a day by rotating multiple batteries, Astorino said.

The drone is splash-proof and equipped with sensors to prevent it from getting too close to a wall, but it is fitted with a 16-inch cage for extra protection in case something goes wrong in tight spaces, officials said.

Miller said Macomb County may be the first public works department in the state to use underground drones and AI software for defect detection.

The Department of Public Works has been using drones for about five years to record the 500 open sewers and water flow it monitors.

A floatable device equipped with a 360-degree GoPro camera and lights, developed by Macomb County Public Works employees, is shown at a Macomb County Public Works news conference at the Chapaton Pump Station in St. Clair Shores on Monday.MACOMB DAILY PHOTOA floatable device equipped with a 360-degree GoPro camera and lights, developed by Macomb County Public Works employees, is shown at a Macomb County Public Works news conference at the Chapaton Pump Station in St. Clair Shores on Monday.MACOMB DAILY PHOTO

For pipes containing running water, public works staff constructed their own buoyant device equipped with a GoPro camera to provide 3D video footage of the pipe's interior that can be analyzed by AI and compiled into a report. The device is lowered into a manhole, and the wastewater flow carries the raft while the camera captures 360-degree video of the pipe.

As part of the bureau's asset management plan, engineers are building a database of inspections conducted in 2017, 2020 and 2023, spanning about 60 miles of pipeline, officials said. To date, officials said, they have brought in inspection data from more than 400,000 linear feet of pipe and 650 manholes. In one of the first re-evaluations of previous data, artificial intelligence found some additional structural problems in a sewer.

Using SewerIA software, Public Works engineers were recently able to conduct a “deeper analysis” of historical data that gave civil engineers confidence that two sections of large pipes in the Macomb Interceptor Drain that were candidates for upgrades did not require immediate relining and could postpone work to focus efforts on other areas of the district's long-term capital improvement plan, saving an estimated $4 million in the short term.

Miller said the new technology is designed to ensure there is no repeat of the infamous Fraser sinkhole of 2016, which closed 15 Mile Road for nearly a year and cost $75 million to repair.

“If we learned anything from the terrible disaster that occurred several years ago with the sinkhole on 15 Mile Road, it is the need for inspections – the regular inspection of all of our critical underground infrastructure to the extent that we can do so within the resources available to us,” said Miller, who took office just days after the incident.

She said the new inspection will “enable our management team to put in place a capital improvement program to ensure our infrastructure is properly maintained and does not fail. We will literally save millions of dollars.”

Macomb County Public Service DroneMacomb County Public Service Drone

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