December 21, 2016      

Robots have already entered our daily lives, but not necessarily in ways people expect. Unheralded heroes toil around us, extending human capabilities and demonstrating new business models around robot services. Cisbot crawls beneath busy city streets, patching live natural gas lines and reducing traffic disruptions.

Hauppauge, N.Y.-based ULC Robotics Inc. has one crew in Boston, two in New York, and two more in the U.K. This month, it will add a sixth using its new Cirris diagnostic robot.

Robotics Business Review recently visited a site in Boston and got to observe ULC’s Cisbot in action.

Business Takeaways:

  • Robots as a service, or RaaS, is an increasingly popular business model for companies applying robotics and automation to serving the energy and utilities industries.
  • ULC Robotics’ Cisbot and larger Cirris robots are an innovative example of RaaS, inspecting and repairing live gas mains with minimal surface street disruption.
  • The crew members operating Cisbot in Boston are experienced with field robotics and have the skills bridging old infrastructure and cutting-edge and improving technology.

Robot services for success

Utility companies have turned to robotics as a service (RaaS) for infrastructure inspection and maintenance. ULC’s patented designs enable its robots to find and patch leaks without having to shut off service or tear up long stretches of roadways to get at aging cast-iron gas mains.

ULC's Cisbot on site

ULC’s Cisbot includes wheels, cameras, laser guides, and a drill.

In Boston, ULC has a robot services contract with National Grid PLC. Trucks from both were present at the work site, as well as a police detail.

“RaaS makes sense from a capex [capital expenditure] point of view,” said Jay Fabian, the ULC robotics crew leader at the site. “The operation of the robot and its joint-sealing process are highly specialized. It allows utilities to extend the usable life of the pipeline, so you need a crew that knows how to use it.”

Businesspeople in suits and college students walked by the site, oblivious to the half-dozen experienced workers wearing hard hats. ULC’s crew included rated aircraft pilots and robotics veterans.

“Training takes nine months to a year to become a crew leader,” said Claricio Gara Jr., or “Junior,” an operator and crew leader who previously worked as an integrator with Intuitive Surgical Inc.

Prepping for launch

Unlike in New York, Boston laws require that the vertical pipe used to launch the robot into buried horizontal pipes be taken down each night. The crew spent time one chilly morning loading the 100-lb. Cisbot into the tube, bolting the tube to a custom seal, and pumping in nitrogen to eliminate oxygen.

ULC Robotics' Cisbot is useful to utility companies.

ULC Robotics’ Cisbot crew prepares to launch the robot into a live gas main.

After a 15-minute pressure test, the tethered Cisbot was lowered into the pipe. From its entry point, the robot can roll about 800 feet in either direction, and progress is measured in pipe segments explored per day.

“We’ll do one side at a time,” Fabian explained. “We try to do four to five joints per day.”

Cisbot includes four wheels to move through mains and lock its position in three dimensions, a drill to make holes, and an inline pump for industry-standard sealant. The robot’s sensors include six cameras, a microphone, and laser guides for drilling and applying the sealant.

The rugged robot requires cleaning and tests between uses, and the crew is able to make some repairs on the spot if needed.

Journey to the center of urban infrastructure

The two main operators sat in the truck, remotely controlling Cisbot’s progress and applying sealant as needed. Screens displayed data from all cameras, as well as location and other data. Cisbot rolled out 226 feet to a bend where it continued inspection.

Once the operator located a bell-and-spigot joint, Cisbot drilled a hole and applies sealant. The sealant cures in about 24 hours and can extend the life of a pipe by another 50 years.

“We’ve also found all kinds of debris,” Fabian noted. “We’ve found a shoe and documents from Prohibition, and in South London, we found a bomb from World War II.”

ULC's Cisbot can help utility companies with capex.

Jay Fabian, ULC crew chief, operates Cisbot in Boston.

“Everything is recorded,” he said. “We hand over all reports and data to the utilities.” While ULC maintains detailed records, future applications of data analysis could deliver even more insights for robot services.

Fabian showed a joint-sealing checklist on a clipboard, as well as graphs showing the areas inspected and repaired so far. He acknowledged that more of the process could be digitized, but the main focus for operators is maintaining their concentration and patience during the long hours of directing the robot through pipes.

“Eventually, the robots will have more autonomy so that we can focus on the higher-level tasks,” he said, comparing Cisbot to developments in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). “Including time for setup and takedown, we’re here from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.”

When the outdoors temperature consistently dips below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, ULC’s crews return to Long Island for training, catching up on paperwork, and discussing robot operations and refinements.

More on Robot Services and Infrastructure:

ULC Robotics, which is a member of this past year’s prestigious RBR50 list of the most innovative and influential robotics companies, has other RaaS offerings. They include research and development “from concept to commercialization,” field deployment of UAVs for utilities and agriculture, and other energy services.

“We have about 100 staffers, and we’re hiring engineers and machinists,” said Ellen Lattari, marketing and public relations specialist at ULC.