Page last updated at 12:14 GMT, Sunday, 28 December 2008

When underwater robots go to work

The underwater robots allow water tanks to be inspected and cleaned without the need for draining and any risk to human life

By Giancarlo Rinaldi
South of Scotland reporter, BBC Scotland news website

They might just be the greatest robot double act since R2D2 and C3P0 from the Star Wars movies.

They do not enjoy the same worldwide profile but the ROV inspection unit and VR600 cleaning robot make a fine team.

Their underwater missions are providing a hi-tech solution to one of man's most ancient problems - how to secure a constant supply of safe drinking water.

In the process, they are removing any risk to human life from carrying out operations in a confined space.

Length 750mm (29.5in)
Width 600mm (23.6in)
Height 450mm (17.75in)
Weight 60kg (132lbs)
Smallest hatch size it can fit into 600mmx450mm
Designed with offshore specification components but generally operates in 10m of water

The sub-aqua duo are employed by Scottish Borders firm Panton McLeod which has its headquarters near Melrose.

It has recently invested more than 120,000 in new equipment with the hope of expanding its water cleaning and inspection work in the United States.

The ROV and VR600 are central to that aim.

The inspection unit is a small submarine used to take video footage of the walls and floors of water tanks.

It allows close examination of areas which human inspectors would not normally be able to access.

It used to be necessary to drain a water tank completely to allow an inspection to take place.

The other option was to send in specialist divers but that also required cutting off supplies to customers due to contamination regulations.

Underwater teammates

Now the completely sterilised ROV can slip smoothly into action to find out if a fault exists.

It is able to retrieve objects using its in-built "manipulator", can be used to take water samples and can also inject dye into the water in order to find leaks.

That means that the unit can help to avoid unnecessary draining of reservoirs or pinpoint what works are required to reduce the time supplies are offline.

Length 530mm (21in)
Width 245mm (9.6in)
Height 254mm (10in)
Weight 10.4kg (22.9lbs)
Smallest hatch size it can fit into 245mmx254mm
Can operate in 175m of water

If the ROV finds that there are problems with the water, that is where its teammate the VR600 steps in.

Its purpose is to move across the floor of a tank sucking up any sediment that has fallen to the bottom.

The unit - costing about 100,000 in total - is specially designed so that everything it collects goes straight into a pipe that is fed out of the tank.

Once again, its main benefit is that it helps to avoid any cut in water supplies.

Panton McLeod's operations director Paul Henderson said the equipment was a key to the service it could provide.

"We run specialist chemical cleaning teams from each of our offices but we also have a dedicated unit for our underwater work with the submarines," he said.

"We use state-of the-art, remote-controlled equipment to inspect these huge underground storage tanks while they are filled with pure drinking water, so it's vital that all of our equipment is clean and sterilised."

Earlier this year the company expanded its Borders base and has also set up a new office in Denver, Colorado.

It says it intends to "revolutionise the way water facilities are cleaned across the north American continent".

All, of course, with a little help from its underwater robots.

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