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Medford hires sewer robot

The mechanical marvel will do the dirtiest work in town
Courtesy photo Medford's new $184,040 sewer-cleaning robot is steered by a joystick.
Courtesy photo Medford's new sewer robot is operated from a TV truck.

A $184,040 robot steered by a joystick will soon tackle the messiest job in town — scouring obstructions from the city’s sewer system.

The robotic cutter is equipped with a video camera and is able to remove the toughest deposits, including mortar, roots and other debris.

“It’s kind of like a little robotic crawler,” said John Vial, Medford Public Works director.

Medford City Council Thursday night unanimously approved the purchase of the Schwalm self-propelled robotic cutter from Cues, a company that also provides the closed-circuit television system used to inspect pipes.

Unlike the more conventional idea of a robot, this device is mostly a bunch of hoses with a variety of cutting tools that is controlled by a joystick as the operator safely views the inside of the pipe on a screen.

“Basically it’s like a gamer controller,” Vial said.

It will be mounted inside a truck that is already equipped with video equipment

“This device will be used a lot,” Vial said. “We have nothing of this caliber that can do this kind of work for the city.”

Vial previously worked with the county and started his new job with the city two weeks ago.

Currently the city contracts with a company in Portland that sends down a robotic cutter for $600 an hour.

This year the city needed to remove debris from 19 main sewer lines. The contract work was completed at a rate of $600 per hour totaling $40,420.

With the city owning its own device, it will be able to clear out a lot more sewer systems and perform the work in a more timely manner.

The city estimates the robotic cutter will be used for 100 to 200 hours a year, and the company says the device has a 10-year lifespan.

Some 60% of Medford’s sewer lines are 50 years of age or older.

Over time, root systems creep in, or sometimes during construction projects people drive stakes through the pipes or break them. Other times the lines that come from houses are pushed into the main sewer line, obstructing it. Concrete and other debris can also clog the pipes.

Instead of the costly effort to replace older lines, the city uses a technique that essentially coats the inside of the pipes with a plastic material.

In order to prepare the lines properly for the cured-in-place plastic, the inside has to be very smooth, and that’s where the robotic cutter comes in.

The business end of the robotic cutter has wheels and is self propelled, allowing it to go backward or forward. The head unit also has a certain amount of flexibility, though it can’t turn a 90-degree corner.

The leading edge of one of the devices is called a “piranha” mill cutter. Other cutting devices are also being purchased for a variety of tasks.

Once the cured-in-place plastic is installed in old lines, the robotic cutter comes back in and cuts open the connections to the laterals, which are the lines that come from houses to the sewer line.

“We plan on proceeding with the contract immediately,” Vial said.

Reach freelance writer Damian Mann at dmannnews@gmail.com.