How the City of Toronto is using swimming robots to keep our pipes flowing smoothly

Last year, the oldest sewer pipe in Toronto was due for an inspection.

The hundred-year-old concrete pipe runs under Toronto’s highrise towers and into Lake Ontario. It would have been dangerous — not to mention expensive — to send a diving team to inspect the pipe.

Luckily, the city had something else in mind.

Enter the Deep Trekker Revolution, an approximately 60-pound robot controlled by a remote, much like a drone, only underwater.

The Canadian company’s robots, which come in all shapes and sizes, are used by cities and businesses to inspect sewage pipes, nuclear plants, shipwrecks, and aquaculture nets. The submersible robots have special capabilities for different jobs, such as sonar, non-destructive testing tools and grabbers.

For this job, it was the sonar that came in handy, as it helped to navigate the murky waters of the sewer. The robot was able to inspect a section of the pipe that had never been inspected before, according to Deep Trekker.

The city also bought the company’s smaller DTG2 robot a few years ago to inspect stormwater pipes and other similar infrastructure, said Sam Macdonald, president of Deep Trekker.

Macdonald said the DTG2 enables the city to inspect inside pipes without having to shut down whole streets. “Instead of closing off the streets to do a pipe inspection … cities can just take (the robot) out, pop off the manhole cover,” said Macdonald.

However, the DTG2 wasn’t equipped to inspect the ancient pipe, which has a strong current flowing through it. So the city bought Deep Trekker’s larger Revolution for the job. The heftier robot also moves from side to side, instead of just turning like the DTG, said Macdonald, giving it more manoeuvreability.

That November 2020 expedition found a small crack in the pipe — not a major concern but important to be aware of and to monitor, she said.

“Once they got closer to the defect, looking at it with the camera and the lights … they were able to do an inspection, take a bunch of still photos as well as videos of this and have that for decision making.”

The Deep Trekker robots weren’t originally built for sewer pipes. In fact, the idea first came from Macdonald’s fascination with shipwrecks.

Macdonald grew up around the Great Lakes, and remembers learning about the sunken ships at the bottoms of the lakes and waterways around the Pelee Passage and Tobermory.

It’s that fascination that led her to found Deep Trekker a decade ago.

“I don’t spend nearly as much time looking for shipwrecks as I thought I would,” Macdonald said.

For the first few years, Macdonald and co-founders, CEO Jeff Lotz and products director Shawn Pette, ran the company from Lotz’s basement. This included building the robots, said Macdonald.

Today the company employs around 65 people at its Kitchener plant. It also has a subsidiary in Chile that supports its clients in the salmon farming industry there.

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And though shipwrecks were the inspiration for the robots’ inception, their first client used the robots to inspect salmon aquaculture nets for holes in Norway. Now, the same robot can patch holes in the nets, said Macdonald.

Since then, the company has expanded into a variety of industries, including energy, municipal infrastructure, defence, and film, to name a few.

Their robots have inspected Toronto’s storm water sewer pipes, helped film hippos underwater for a media company, and swam inside nuclear reactors to inspect them. They not only save money but often replace the dangerous work usually done by diving teams, said Macdonald. The robots proactively identify issues before they cause big problems.

“Getting into enclosed spaces when you’re in a diving situation is very dangerous. And because of that it’s also very expensive,” said Macdonald.

Deep Trekker’s robots have been used to explore shipwrecks too, including Parks Canada’s effort to locate the two ships involved in the famous Franklin Expedition.

Deep Trekker makes several different robots, including: the DT340, a pipe-crawling robot that comes in two sizes — the smallest can fit inside a six-inch pipe; the DTG, a basketball-sized oblong robot with a 270-degree camera; and the Revolution, an approximately 60-pound robot, which can travel up to 1,000 feet, or more than 300 metres, under the water. The company will release a mid-size remotely operated vehicle at the end of June, for operations requiring something in between the Revolution and the DTG.

The robots, which can be modified for specific purposes, are also for sale to the public. Macdonald said people buy them to use on their boats, perhaps to accompany a family member scuba diving without having to dive in themselves. They will set you back, though — the starter kit for the DTG3 is almost $ 6,000 USD.

Deep Trekker technology is being used more and more for inspections like the one performed last fall in Toronto, Macdonald said, because it enables municipalities and companies to do proactive exploratory excursions at a much lower cost than if a human were to do them.

“The most interesting things that we do are in municipalities and energy, because, you know, these are the types of things that if it goes wrong, things go really wrong,” she said.

Macdonald foresees their robots becoming increasingly automated, and continuing to advance its imaging technology.

“We’re going to take over the world one robot at a time,” Macdonald joked.

TORONTO STAR