Here come the robots: St. Petersburg inks deal for pipe-inspecting robots

The autonomous crawling machines will enable the city to detect leaks three to four times faster than current measures as it repairs its sewage system.
RedZone Robotics’ “Solo” devices help map out sewer systems and prioritize repairs. St. Petersburg has agreed to begin using them. [RedZone Robotics]
RedZone Robotics’ “Solo” devices help map out sewer systems and prioritize repairs. St. Petersburg has agreed to begin using them. [RedZone Robotics]
Published August 16
Updated August 16

ST. PETERSBURG — It’s official: Robots will soon be crawling under city streets.

The City Council unanimously green-lighted a $600,000 contract Thursday with RedZone Robotics to start inspecting pipes using the company’s “Solo” robots to help remedy its sewer issues.

The autonomous crawling machines will enable the city to detect leaks three to four times faster than current methods, senior water resources manager Lisa Rhea has told the Tampa Bay Times. That allows the city to make repairs faster and prioritize areas that need work, said RedZone Robotics sales operations manager John DePasquale.

RELATED STORY: Robots will soon invade St. Petersburg’s sewer pipes. Do not fear them.

The city’s aging system released up to one billion gallons during the 2015-2016 sewage discharges. Leaky pipes contributed to that. Even on dry days, as much as two-thirds of the sewage flow came from groundwater entering the pipes, a consultant said. When rain fell, the volume proved too much for the pipes and the overflow contributed significantly to sewage spills during storms.

Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration was criticized for making bad decisions before and during the crisis, according to a 2017 state report into the city’s sewage problems. But past mayors were also blamed for failing to properly fund the system, the report said, helping set the crisis in motion.

The city signed a consent order with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection required the city to spend $326 million to fix and improve the system. Sewer issues have persisted, though, and the city violated the state order in 2017.

RELATED STORY: St. Pete sewage crisis ends with no charges, $326 million bill

The robot proposal submitted to the City Council on Thursday said the state order calls on the city to inspect 4.7 million linear feet of gravity sewer pipe over a five year period. The robots are expected to help the city meet that goal faster. They’ll work alongside trucks that run video cameras through sewer lines.

The robots will tackle the worst pipes in the city and can inspect up to 10,000 linear feet daily compared to about 2,000 feet with the trucks.

More than a dozen governments across the state have used the robots, including Oldsmar and Palm Bay. The technology has “made a huge difference,” Winter Garden’s assistant city manager of public services Jon Williams told Times./

Contact Ben Leonard at bleonard@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8421. Follow @Ben___Leonard.

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