It's Light Work

It's Light Work

A robot named SAM is roaming the sewers of Albuquerque and Omaha to extend their fiber-optic networks


Hail, the mighty robot. Robots can disable a space ship, like the HAL 9000 in '2001: A Space Odyssey.' They can warn of danger, like the robot in 'Lost in Space.' Or they can go where people don't dare go, like the surface of Mars or the sewers of Albuquerque, N.M.

City officials in Albuquerque and Omaha, Neb., looked to a robot to help them solve the epic problem of wiring their cities with fiber-optic cable. Instead of digging up their streets and causing traffic mayhem, the cities are enlisting the talents of a robot named SAM to install optical fiber into the cities' existing sewer system.

SAM is the Sewer Access Module robot developed by Ka-Te System AG of Zurich, Switzerland. But what is perhaps most advantageous about SAM is what it can't do: SAM can't smell, and thus can go where sensitive humans choose not to.

What makes SAM run? SAM is tethered by an umbilical cord to a 700-MHz Pentium III PC with a 15G hard drive and running Microsoft Windows 2000, said Steve Dodd, chief operating officer of CityNet Telecommunications Inc. of Silver Spring, Md., the contractor installing the fiber-optic cable for Omaha and Albuquerque. All of SAM's smarts reside in the PC, Dodd said. The PC transmits signals to the robot through CityNet's custom software written in C and C++, Dodd said.

Albuquerque, N.M., and Omaha, Neb., are using a robot to maneuver through their sewer systems to install fiber-optic cable without the disruption of digging up the streets in the process.

CityNet pays sewer engineers to clean the sewer pipes out with custom-designed fire hoses that blast water at a pressure of 2,500 pounds per square inch, said Bob Berger, president of CityNet. The jet washing clears everything out, he said.

SAM has several different heads or accessories that it uses to do its job in the sewers, Berger said. 'It's sort of like how a vacuum cleaner has different attachments for cleaning drapes or furniture,' Berger said.

The CityNet crew goes out after the evening rush hour and puts down a few orange cones around the manhole, SAM's portal to the cities' streets.

During SAM's first trip through the sewer, it sports a digital camera that has been environmentally conditioned for sewers and equipped with windshield wipers. The camera records every joint, nook and cranny of the sewer, Berger said.

Sewer walls

CityNet officials load this data into the city's geographic information system database. SAM then descends back into the netherworld of the sewer, this time armed with stainless steel alloy rings that fit flush against the sewer pipe walls. SAM places a ring every four to five feet. The rings have small clips at the top that will hold the conduit for the fiber-optic cable to run through.

Once again, SAM dives beneath the city streets, this time pulling the stainless steel conduit through the clips.

The last step is the easiest, Berger said. The crew blows dark fiber'provided by Alcatel of Plano, Texas'through the conduit. The city then powers up the equipment that sends light pulses through the fiber.

The average fiber-optic ring SAM lays down is between seven miles and 20 miles long, Dodd said.

Less damage

The crew works through the night because that is when the sewer flow is lowest, Berger said.
Using a robot to install fiber-optic cable is about 60 percent faster than ordinary trenching methods and far less traumatic, Dodd said.

'How do you build that last mile of fiber-optic wiring into a building in the middle of an asphalt and concrete jungle?' Berger asked. This has been the holy grail of the telecommunications infrastructure, he said.

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