PHOENIX - In the back of an SRP truck, Michael Wiechens stares at a monitor and works a joystick back and forth. His view: a 360-degree scan from inside an irrigation pipe.
Until eight years ago, SRP workers inspecting pipes for flaws had to do it themselves, crawling into cramped spaces that can contain broken glass, needles and toxic air and requiring a supporting cast of workers to ensure safety.
Today, Wiechens can do the job himself with a robot manufactured in Austria.
"The biggest thing for me is to keep the people that I work with safe, to keep them from having to go into a confined space with only one entrance and one exit," he said.
The 70-pound, steel robot, no bigger than a toaster oven, has wheel and axle configurations for different widths of pipe and features LED lighting around its camera. More than 1,000 feet of cable allows it to move around freely in pipes.
The technology doesn't come cheap: The camera alone costs around $100,000.
With an irrigation-distribution system spanning 1,300 square miles across the Valley, leaks can lead to significant loss of water. While using the robot to inspect pipes is one way SRP conserves water, Dale Persons, SRP's supervisor of water maintenance, said the main value is in safety and savings.
"Now we won't crawl anything smaller than a 24-inch pipe," Persons said. "Who knows what someone has thrown in the structures, and-or what has been flushed down through there. We're able to use this video, pass it on to the engineering groups who can tell us what the condition of the pipe is a lot better than us."
When an SRP worker goes into a pipe, another five or six people must be on hand to make sure he or she is protected from dangers such as water flooding in. The camera truck generally has a two-man crew, Persons said.
Once the robot locates a pipe flaw, the information gathers tells engineers know exactly where to dig and what kinds of repairs are in order.
Persons said one of the larger projects that the robot has tackled lately was surveying of pipes under freeways. Though the pipes should last for 50 years, SRP officials wanted to give them a look halfway through their projected lifespan.
"Nobody knows the condition," he said. "You can imagine how bad a failure would be on the I-10 to California."
Persons said that as the technology advances he expects robots to be able to fix minor flaws from within pipes.
"No one wants to see streets torn up anymore," he said. "Any time we can fix a pipe from the inside without affecting residential areas and people driving up on top it's better for the customers and for SRP."