How I ended up making a living walking in Crap

People ask me all the time how I ended up working in Crap!. Well that story started 13 years ago while I was pulling my hair out reading scientific journals and reports as a geologist back in Australia.


Hi, my name is Robert Lee and I am the CEO and founder of Subterra AI Inc and over the next few weeks I will be giving people an insight to who I am, the company I founded and the problems we are solving in the water space.


13 years ago back in Australia, I found myself frustrated with myself as I found it difficult to learn about underground mining conditions through technical jargon filled white papers and books. Being a visual person I gravitated towards images. In my past time I was an avid photographer and soon found myself incorporating it into my daily working life where I would document mine sites through photos. My reports were filled with images and visual results and I soon found that clients were interested in how I presented my findings. It took me across Australia and New Zealand capturing and documenting underground mining roadways, incident sites and measuring convergence of floor heave using photogrammetry.


Over the years working as a geologist in underground mines I built and tested several imaging systems suited for the underground environment. I also become heavily vested in 3D mapping using terrestrial photogrammetry. And to explain terrestrial photogrammetry, well it's much like aerial photogrammetry but from the ground. Photogrammetry to put it simply is the science of recreating a space in 3D using a set of overlapping photos or video of a scene from different vantage points. Depending on if there is scale you can measure quite accurately the scene in a 3D space much like LIDAR or other scanning techniques but with images.


The year 2013 came around and Australia's mining boom burst and I found myself without a job and a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to start my own mapping business, so I did. I knocked on doors, rang everyone that I knew and visited as many potential clients as possible. I still remember walking to my first client where I had to take a train to the town the mine was located at. From there I had to walk onto the mine site with trucks blasting past me and dust going in my mouth. It was embarrassing not having a car and having to walk onto a mine site. Soon after that meeting I landed my first gig mapping a coal stockpile using an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. From that job I landed another mapping the condition of a 200 year mine shaft to then mapping the condition of 14km of fresh water stream affected by mining subsidence and to then laser scan the movement in a roadway. I tested LIDAR, multispectral imaging and other technologies but soon found myself back where I enjoyed it the most, mapping underground.


It wasn't until a contact of mine set up a meeting with a person at the country's largest water utility that I had even thought about hopping in a sewer. The meeting went well and I soon identified that there was no technology like mine in the wastewater industry and every city has a sewer. I entered my first sewer with my mapping system strapped to me in 2015 and on the first go I could have quite easily lost my life drowning in RAW sewage. No sh$#. We entered a 6ft interceptor sewer with the sewage at knee height and silt about ankle height. Within 30 minutes and about 300ft down the pipe the current got stronger, waist high and the silt was now shin deep. Things got interesting. It took another 30 minutes to get to the only exit 500ft downstream. I still remember trying to get out and I couldn't lift my leg to get to the first step iron. I thought I was doomed.


Figure 1: A shakey photo of me waist deep in sewage on my first sewer traverse before it went bad


For the next 12 months I trudged waist deep through many miles of raw sewage capturing 3D data using iterations of my mapping system. My systems went from human mounted to a tethered float mount to then an unassisted version which proved to help a number of stakeholders within our clients organisation.


Figure 2: Me struggling after hours hunched over in 4ft pipe and a body worn system


Figure 3: Updated floating assisted version


Figure 4: Get me out of there - the unassisted SewerScout™ version

During those times we faced many potentially dangerous situations while navigating the slippery path underground. There were times that we could not enter the sewer due to high amounts of noxious gases to higher than expected flows that could wash us downstream. I still remember one time halfway through a 1 mile section with only 2 exits that our gas meters went off. There was not enough oxygen and on top of that there were high amounts of hydrogen sulphide and CO2. Calls were made over the radio to get more air down to us, but the distance to push clean air was too far so we had to make a dash for it. After many horrible situations like that I said to myself there had to be a better way, a safer, more less resource intensive way, a smarter way. From there a new way of mapping and inspecting sewers was born. Welcome the SewerScout™, the worlds first untethered floating condition robot.


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