By Cassie McClure and Suzanne Michaels
Published in Las Cruces Bulletin 7/12/19
Las Cruces Utilities (LCU) Wastewater Collection Inspector Lonnie Orona gets his little truck ready to cruise through the pipes. It’s a small robotic truck with wheels coated with something like sandpaper to stick to the slippery walls of sewer pipes, and most importantly, a camera attached to view what’s happening in places where people cannot go.
He lowers the robot down into the sewer line; it’s attached to the above-ground command center truck. This is where Orona will be able to see through the eyes of the robot and turn its “head” to look at connection lines for any breaks.
The robot has a range of 700 feet, enough to go a good distance through clay pipes that join every 3 feet and PVC pipes that join every 20 feet. It’s at those connections where he sometimes finds problems.
“What happens is that we get a call, say about excess dirt coming out of a line,” he said. “The vactor truck crew goes out with me and they do a preliminary cleaning of the pipe, by vacuuming it. I follow with the camera to scan the line. Usually there will be a crack in the older clay pipes and that’s where the dirt is coming in.”
In addition to “seeing” the problem, the robot sends back the exact GPS location for the LCU crew to dig and repair that broken pipe. Because of the robotic truck, almost 70 percent of Las Cruces wastewater lines have been recorded. It’s a way to confirm what’s shown on old maps, make sure that no land shifts have occurred, and to know exactly where lines connect underground.
“It’s not just the wastewater treatment facilities that we maintain,” said John Mrozek, LCU Deputy Director for wastewater. “The Utilities wastewater line of business is also responsible for maintaining more than 500 miles of sewer lines running underneath city streets. If there’s a line break or a clog, then it affects the larger system and it’s our job to fix it.”
From inside the truck, the robot also has a completely different view of the city, from frogs that must think they’ve lost their minds and quickly hop away from the camera’s view, to the occasional rat that challenges the robot until realizing it’s not a threat.
Some of the older manholes, lined with bricks in a wide circle, look more like a cathedral from the robotic truck point of view. All these things are hidden from view for most residents, except for those like Orona. He says the LCU robot is out working under the streets of Las Cruces nearly every day, spotting problems, allowing quick repairs of small issues before they become big ones.
You can reach Las Cruces Utilities at 528-3500 from 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Las Cruces Utilities provides GAS – WATER – WASTEWATER – SOLID WASTE services to approximately 100,000 Las Cruces residents and businesses.
PHOTO 1: The tiny robotic truck is ready to roll through city sewers, so LCU crews can see any problems and make repairs quickly. That keeps city wastewater flowing smoothly.