Meet the robot that turned 3 skeptics into believers

“We were total skeptics,” Scott Blumm said. Eyes intense. Arms crossed. Brow furrowed—making a convincing case for just how unconvinced he was.

Will Somers nods in agreement. “We’ve been working with cast iron pipes our entire lives, and we didn’t believe the technology could deliver,” he said.

Duane York waits a few seconds to jump in, but not long enough to hide his eagerness. “But then we saw this thing in action, and we had to get our hands on it.”

The technology they were skeptical of was CISBOT, a machine that would go on to complete a project 10 times faster than usual, saving $2 million in just one year. These savings allow Spire to invest in hiring more crews to upgrade the aging infrastructure even faster.

For Scott, Will and Duane, CISBOT answered a challenge they’ve had for the better part of their professional careers: What to do with aging cast iron pipes beneath the ground.

While crews are breaking company records upgrading pipelines1, it will still be decades before Spire upgrades the larger feeder main that supplies the entire distribution system. That’s because this larger main still has its integrity due to its size and strength.

But as the cast iron on the larger feeder main continues to age, leaks are inevitable, so it’s crucial to find a way to maintain the integrity of larger pipes until they can be replaced.

"People can walk on the street without realizing a machine is crawling beneath their feet."

Enter CISBOT. The machine takes the typically long, costly and disruptive process of sealing joints in the larger feeder main, and makes it less expensive, safer for employees and better for customers.

“You see, when you’re sealing joints on a 24-inch main, you have to dig up a lot of the street—about a hole every 12 feet,” Will said. “With CISBOT, you only need one point of entry. People can walk on the street without realizing a machine is crawling beneath their feet.”

“A lot of these pipes are on busy streets,” Duane said. “So now we don’t need to have crews down in every hole working. It’s a lot safer.”

“And like we said, it’s much faster,” Scott adds.

Scott almost laughs as he says that last fact—the kind of almost-laugh a person gives when they’ve just said something unbelievable.

Scott, Will and Duane have worked together for decades, and their mutual respect for each other is apparent in the way they interact. Which is why it’s surprising when, for the first time in an hour-long conversation, one of them cuts the other off.

“Guys! I forgot to show you this,” Duane said.

CISBOT has a camera attached to it that takes videos and pictures from inside the pipe. Duane pulls up one of the photos showing the beginning of a crack.

“This is stuff we’ve never seen. It’s so bizarre.” 

“What in the world?” Scott asks.

“Is that how they always start? From the inside out?” Will wonders aloud.

The men are talking over each other, and for good reason. For the first time, they’re seeing the beginning of a cracked pipe from the inside. Except now, because of CISBOT, they can fix the crack before it becomes a leak—ultimately preventing an emergency.

CISBOT not only delivers the value it promised, it’s also showing people like Duane, Scott and Will—men who have decades of experience in this field—more than they would’ve guessed was possible. And after a year of testing the machine, with hopes to use it in Spire’s other regions, the three have done a complete 180 on their opinion of CISBOT.

“Oh yeah, we’re believers now,” Scott said. And Duane and Will give a solid nod of agreement. 

1Spire crews updated 382 miles of pipeline in 2018—a 7 percent increase over 2017.