A lot more than pipe dreams for ULC Robotics

By GREGORY ZELLER //

Two steps ahead of “the next big boost to the U.S. economy,” there is ULC Robotics.

The “big boost” in this case is robotics, and the bold prediction comes from Greg Penza, the president and CEO of the Hauppauge-based R&D firm, who sees robotics as the next great economic evolutionary step after the PC revolution of the 1980s and the buildout of the nation’s cellular systems, which occurred largely in the 1990s.

“Robots will be used every day in our homes and businesses,” Penza told Innovate LI. “We’ll see them everywhere and we’ll interact with them everywhere, and they will drive the next boom in the global economy.”

Which is terrific news, obviously, for ULC Robotics, which incorporated in 2001 and has grown into a leading international provider of automatons and related systems for the energy and utility industries.

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The CIRRIS robot

The Hauppauge company took a huge step toward that bright future in November, when it announced the trial run of a new line of robots built specifically to work inside active gas mains. The Cast Iron Robotic Repair Inspection System – specifically, the CIRRIS XI (as in “inspection”) and CIRRIS XR (as in “repair”) – was designed in collaboration with SGN, a major United Kingdom utility operating 74,000 kilometers of gas pipeline through Scotland and southern England, where CIRRIS testing is now underway.

While their focus is rooted in history – extending the functional lifespan of giant cast-iron pipes laid throughout Europe, Australia and the United States between 1850 and 1950 – the mechanical marvels pack sensors, cameras and tools straight out of Tomorrowland.

The ULC inspection robot, for example, can visually inspect pipe walls and collect critical integrity data, information that couldn’t be gathered remotely before now. The company’s repair bot is the workhorse, able to fix leaks and prevent future leaks by injecting joint sealant wherever it sees a need.

The remote-controlled robots measure about 4 feet long by 1 foot wide by 1 foot tall and weigh about 140 pounds each, which are “pretty big and heavy, as robots go,” Penza noted. While their abilities are advanced, their biggest technological leap is the ability to work in active pipes and to enter pipelines through very small openings, minimizing the usual mess and bother of a pipe job.

“We can enter the pipelines with very little disruption to traffic, evaluate the structural integrity and make the necessary repairs while the gas is still on,” Penza said. “So people who are cooking or heating their homes or businesses or running their plants never even know we’re under the ground working.”

ULC Robotics began collaborating with the UK utility when it inquired about a predecessor model, the Cast Iron Joint Sealing Robot, or CISBOT. That led to a two-year contract and a funding deal for R&D on the latest line.

“They want to be innovation leaders in the UK,” Penza noted. “They went looking for companies that could bring innovation to their company, and came across the Atlantic and found us.”

SGN – the UK’s second-largest utility, with over 5.5 million customers – is not the only major international utility to come calling. Domestically, ULC counts PSEG and Con Edison among its clients and has full-time bots assigned to National Grid sites in Brooklyn and Boston.

Penza also noted ongoing discussions with gas companies in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

“We’re expanding into the mid-Atlantic states,” he said. “Our footprint will soon be from Boston down to Washington.”

The expansion will include several products beyond the tried-and-true CISBOTs and up-and-coming CIRRIS line. ULC Robotics still produces earlier models like the Variable Geometry Crawler, a much smaller forbearer that specializes in real-time video inspections of gas mains. The VGC will find new life, Penza noted, as a “pre-inspection robot,” heading in before the CIRRIS models to make sure the coast is clear.

The company also continues to manufacture and distribute the miniaturized PRX250 Gas Main Inspection Camera System – ideal for visual inspections of pipes as tiny as 2 inches in diameter – and is awaiting a Federal Aviation Administration exemption before launching a new drone fleet that will offer customers unprecedented aerial inspections.

Prenza said his firm has “more than half-a-dozen” drones set to fly and a team of licensed drone operators at the ready. At under 55 pounds apiece, the drones don’t require airport facilities, the president noted, just the FAA’s permission to take off on commercial missions.

While the bulk of the business is dedicated to utility operations, and the majority of that bulk is focused on gas utilities, there are other interesting sciences – and potential verticals – in ULC Robotics’ memory banks. Among the company’s 13 patents, which include such cool-sounding robot snap-ons as the “multifunction pipeline weld removal apparatus,” are several for radio-frequency-based warning systems for train conductors.

But robotically repairing gas mains is still the company’s No. 1 focus, and already ULC Robotics is planning upgrades for its newest line. Chief among them: the ability to turn the remote-controlled machines into preprogrammed devices that operate independent of human control.

Independent operation is two to three years away, Penza noted, but “the electronic architecture is already built into the robots.”

“We’ll be able to program them to follow a series of steps, and we’ll introduce new sensors that feel, see and react,” he said. “We’ve got to really develop an efficient methodology of operation first, but once that methodology is developed through manual control, we’ll start to overlay autonomous activities and control.”

That’s the sort of forward thinking required of a firm that wants to stay out in front of the next post-industrial revolution, according to Penza.

“We’re looking over the horizon at the cusp of it now,” he said. “But in five or 10 years, robotics is going to be playing a huge role in the United States’ economic growth, and we’ll be right there.”