PipeDiver will go where people can’t

It may conjure up images of The Matrix, but its creators say an intelligent robotic device being developed by a group of Canadian companies to inspect water pipe systems has the potential to generate significant cost savings for water system operators, and ensure safer water for Canadians.

The PipeDiver project is being led by The Pressure Pipe Inspection Company Ltd. (PPIC) in Mississauga, Ont., which specializes in water pipeline assessment.

The company was formed to commercialize sensing technology developed by Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., which is also a project partner.

Other participants include Markham, Ont.-based Orvitek Inc., which brings expertise in control system development; Toronto’s InvoDane Engineering Ltd. specializing in mechanical systems; and C-Core of St. John’s, Nfld., with expertise in intelligent system development.

PipeDiver, scheduled for completion in December 2007, will be a motorized, self-contained intelligent system that can inspect sections of pre-stressed concrete cylinder pipe (PCCP) that human inspectors can’t enter. PCCP is commonly used to transport water in Canada.

Xiangjie Kong, PipeDiver project manager with PPIC, said the project is about developing a practical, automated and intelligent inspection mechanism for the water transmission system. Currently, he said, the process is done manually by humans. “We send people into the pipelines through an access point and they collect data manually. The idea with this project is to develop an advanced intelligent system to do inspections without people getting into pipes.”

And while size continues to matter, it matters less.

While people can inspect pipes no smaller than 36 inches, PipeDiver can be inserted into pipes as small as 16 inches, Kong said. As well, he said before a human can inspect a pipe the system must be de-watered for safety reasons. With PipeDiver, that expensive step is unnecessary.

After insertion into the pipe system, PipeDiver will expand itself and begin the inspection process. At the end of the day, the device will be retrieved from another access point, and the data downloaded and analyzed.

“In the pipe we’re detecting, quantifying and locating the number of broken pre-stressing wire,” said Kong. “In simple terms, it will tell you which pipes are in good condition and which pipes are in bad condition.”

The challenge, Kong said, is integrating sensing technology with the intelligent system and robotic technology. He said PipeDiver represents a milestone in water pipeline inspection, and with various components that will be developed, such as the sensors and tools for data acquisition, quality and analysis, there are considerable spin-off possibilities.

Once a prototype is complete, it will be tested in the infrastructure of the Halifax Regional Water Commission (HRWC). Its chief engineer, Jamie Hannam, said he sees great potential for the technology. “We wanted to get involved because as a water utility we have a large volume of water transmission mains that require the unique kind of inspection that this tool can provide.”

He said pipe inspection technology has made big strides in recent years. Remote field eddy technology has given visibility inside the pipe, but its use still requires shutting-down the system and sending people in with equipment. The goal of PipeDiver is to automate that process.

For HRWC, it will mean better information, obtained more cost effectively, allowing the Commission to predict stress and deterioration points and replace problem sections of pipe before they fail, Hannam said.

The $1.4 million project will be supported in part by a $500,000 grant from Precarn Inc., a government-backed industry group that supports intelligent system research and development.

Precarn president and CEO Paul Johnston said when they select grant recipients they look for a useful application that will benefit Canada, and PipeDiver scored high in their competitive process.

“Water and sewer infrastructure around North America is all fairly old and is approaching the point where it needs to be replaced,” said Johnston. “Rather then do it holus bolus, if you can actually inspect all of the pipe first you can prioritize your work.”

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