The data and information that can be gathered by drones is something we’ve been focused on lately, but it’s important to remember that drones can open up just as many opportunities in terms of the physical tasks they can perform. One company is dedicated to helping organizations safely and easily perform dangerous and dirty jobs like painting buildings and towers, washing windows, safely applying chemicals and plenty more.
The Apellix umbilical cord and tether system allows their drone to stay in the air for hours without having to recharge, while also being able to supply the constant stream of material that would otherwise be far too heavy to take into the air. I caught up with Bob Dahlstrom, CEO of Apellix to discuss how and why this feature makes his product different, why the physical tasks drones can perform are so important to learn about, why he says to anyone skeptical of the technology and plenty more.
Jeremiah Karpowicz: What got you interested in drone technology?
Bob Dahlstrom: I worked my way through college painting houses so when our beach house needed painting, I decided to do it myself. I had the scaffolding delivered, started climbing up and down ladders, and my shoulder went numb, my neck and back hurt, and I quickly realized “I’m not in college anymore.” I knew there had to be a better way.
I started considering drones but the immediate obstacle was that the drones couldn’t keep landing to resupply with fresh batteries and paint. The “Eureka” came when I thought of the umbilical cord. I knew I could combine my love of how mechanical things work and my love of software to build a drone based spray-painting system.
How have you seen the technology change and evolve since you became involved with it?
There have been a lot of technological changes and advancements in the industry in the last few years. Prices have come down, capabilities have gone up, and more and more hardware with different specs has arrived. Of critical importance is sensor technology, which has continued to improve and become more affordable.
To me, drones are flying computers. And if you are a flying computer you are software. Therefore “Drones are Software”. Herein lies the critical importance of the computing platform and various sensors. As the hardware becomes more powerful and robust it enables the software to become more powerful and robust.
One specific example is LIDAR sensors used for measuring distance with pinpoint laser lights. Just a few years ago the inexpensive LIDAR systems cost thousands of dollars, now there are some for just a few hundred. As sensor technology continues to change and get better it allows for additional capabilities and functions of drone-based systems.
Taking pictures and gathering data are typically a big focus in terms of what people can do with a UAV, but we often don’t talk about the physical tasks drones can perform. Why do you think that’s the case?
There are very few uses of drones to physically interact with and modify objects in their environment. Personally, I believe this is because not many people think of drones as flying computers but rather as something that carries things such as cameras, sensors, and maybe packages for delivery.
When you make the cognitive leap to drones as flying computers then you start thinking of software. Once you start thinking of drones as software, all of a sudden using drones to perform physical tasks becomes very exciting. Then by add the capability of power and material transfer from the ground (via an umbilical cord and tether) it opens an array of use cases. With theoretically unlimited power and material transfer tasks such as spray painting and coating power transmission towers and bridges or washing windows on skyscrapers are possible.
I fully expect a plethora of use cases to emerge as people realize, “Wow, yes! Drones can do more than take pictures and gather data, they can do real work”.
Are most people unaware of what sort of physical tasks drones can do, or do you think they’re skeptical of such capabilities?
People are both unaware drones can do physical tasks and modify their environment, and they are skeptical of such capabilities. Drones have been doing limited physical tasks such as carrying a small amount of pesticide or fertilizer and applying it to crops and vegetation or delivering small packages but once people realize they can do “real work” I fully expect the skepticism to disappear and the number of and type of use cases with the drone completing physical tasks to skyrocket.
As the founder of Apellix, was your focus always around the physical tasks drones could perform?
Yes, the entire concept of Apellix is to have drones do more than fly around gathering data or taking pictures.
With Apellix we want drones to do “real work” and by that we mean interact with and physically modify things. Apellix uses proprietary, hardened, industrial customized software to enable our drone-based applicators to do things drones have never done before. By combining high tech hardware with leading edge software, our drones are able to paint buildings and towers, wash windows, safely apply chemicals and more.
With an umbilical cord and tether, suddenly a drone physically modifying their environment makes a lot of sense. Imagine, for example, a truck or ATV with reservoirs onboard could drive down a row of crops while the umbilically connected drones complete different analysis and spot treat crops with fertilizer, pesticides, or irrigation. Thus the system could efficiently provide for the needs of each plant without having to “blanket” an entire area with a chemical. Now, imagine applying this same technology to other tasks. The possibilities are almost endless.
What sort of tasks are your drones performing?
We are currently spray-painting structures, washing windows, and applying chemicals (mold and mildew killer as surface prep for painting). In development and near term, we are building the platform for a few specific customer use cases such as coating the interior and exterior of large above ground storage tanks (ASTs) and applying a hydrophobic/oleophobic nanotechnology coating to windmill blades.
Use cases we are in discussions about include coating cruise and cargo ships, offshore oil & gas facilities, and power and cell phone towers. In early April 2016 we completed our first proof of concept flights utilizing a pressure washer for high pressure and will be expanding into this area as well. Towards the end of June we completed proof of concept flights where the drone autonomously completed spray-painting a straight line on a wall.
What sort of opportunities have you helped create for your customers?
A good example is coating large windmill blades with a nanotechnology coating. Since it’s a nanotechnology spray, a respirator can’t filter it and it is extremely toxic to inhale the solution. Workers must wear a pressurized full body suit with an air hose supply line. The idea was for the worker to rappel down from the center of the windmill in this suit with all the spray apparatus needed to apply the coating. Using the Apellix Worker Bee, they can now stay safe on the ground with no risk of falling or exposure to toxic chemicals.
How much of a factor are safety concerns when it comes to using a drone in place of a person?
Drones are much safer for some jobs than people. Not only can the eliminate the risk of a fall from heights, which by the way is the number one cause of deaths in the workplace, but they can also prevent exposure to toxic or other chemicals.
One CEO who has spent his career in the cleaning of oil & gas and chemical manufacturing facilities told me, “Bob, I’ve had to tell 5 five mothers their sons are never coming home again.” What do at Apellix is use our system to complete dull, dangerous, and dirty jobs that put humans at risk and prevent these conversations from happening.
Also, don’t discount the value of safety. Lower insurance costs and lost productivity from injured workers can also increase the bottom line.
Where do you see these sorts of applications headed? What kind of physical tasks do you see drones being able to handle in the future?
As Apellix continues to build out our platform and the uses we have in process we will add high pressure and ultra high pressure use cases for jobs such as cleaning interior spaces of large industrial facilities. This could include underground storage tanks (USTs), blast furnaces, coal and other smokestacks and interior tanks. Many of these interior “spaces” are unsafe and difficult to clean.
Imagine opening a 17” manway and moving scaffolding, ladders, equipment, electrical cords, lights, and people into the interior space to hydro blast or clean it. In some cases the space is flushed with nitrogen, the worker wears a full body suit, and the chemicals being cleaned off the interior space are toxic. Now, imagine the same job being done from the outside while the drone is inside doing the real work and documenting it.
What would you say to anyone who is skeptical of whether or not a drone can efficiently and cost-effectively handle a given physical task?
If you are skeptical that a drone can do a physical task and want to have some fun, after mowing your yard, forget the leaf blower. Take your drone and fly it very low above the sidewalk to “sweep” or blow the grass clippings clear. You will have just effectively completed a physical task that at one time required a broom.