We live in a time when the fantastic has become ordinary. When I was growing up in the 1970’s we believed “Rosie the Robot” and flying cars from the Jetson’s would be here by the turn of the century. And while the future now is not the same as what we imagined, we do have “magical flying machines” straight out of science fiction, cars that drive themselves, and an architecturally complex built world that has sprung up around us. Our telephones are pocket computers and almost anything we can imagine we can build. What is the driver of these changes? Technology – and the technologies that may bring us some of these changes are often hard to see, even when they are right in front of us.

This very technology is needed, and in use, for an ongoing war that’s right before our eyes… unseen but very real. This enemy fells bridges, sinks ships, sparks fires, and nearly brought down the Statue of Liberty. This war is against corrosion. Scientifically, corrosion is the oxidation of metal that happens with its exposure to the environment, especially water and salt. Corrosion causes metal to lose its strength and properties.

Image: Jeremy Countryman, Apellix

We are now at a period in time where we have created and continue to improve aerial robotic systems used in the war on corrosion that can prepare surfaces for paint or coatings, apply the coatings, and monitoring the coating job and also the condition of the underlying asset. And this is done with modified hardened industrial robotic drones. We all know and love drones, those charming little creatures that take our picture at concerts, capture amazing fireworks displays at night, and hopefully soon will deliver our packages. And, most of us are familiar with industrial robots, system used for manufacturing: include welding, painting, assembly, pick and place for printed circuit boards, and more; all accomplished with high endurance, speed, and precision. By adding an articulating robotic arm and hand, also known as an end effector, to an industrial drone and creating the software to operate the systems we have a Precision-Controlled Aerial Robotics Platform. This allows us to combine the precision, reliability, and performance of robots; with the flight capabilities of a drone.

Thanks in large part to aerospace design software, our built world has changed from structures that were box-shaped to structures with flowing lines. This makes maintenance, and corrosion prevention, even more difficult and challenging. One thing that is great about Aerial Robotics is they can adapt. They can easily conform to non-linear surfaces while other robotic or other techniques have a long adaptation curve. And structures with flowing lines include more than just buildings, think of modern cars, bridges and boats. And because the corrosion prevention and mitigation aerial robotic platform doesn’t travel on the surface or have to move in straight lines as for example scaffolding does, it can clean, apply coating, perform tests and complete selective maintenance seamlessly, over any form of surface. And in the process, we gather a breadth and depth of data never before available.

Image: Jeremy Countryman, Apellix

These aerial robotic platforms gather allow what OSHA (the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration) describes as “engineering the risk out and away.” They remove the risk of people falling by keeping them safe on the ground and the aerial platform in the air. At the company I work at Apellix, we like to say that we are bringing science to the workplace, replacing human intuition and judgement with data-driven precision. In essence performing a job, that was once manual with varying quality, with the robotic precision of a factory.

Estimates are that direct and indirect costs of corrosion are 6% of the United States Gross Domestic Product.

A lot of what is done in the industrial sector of the built environment is for managing corrosion. And this is a war. A war on corrosion. You may think I’m exaggerating by describing corrosion mitigation as a war… but, for highways alone, corrosion costs the United States $400 billion a year, according to the Federal Highway Administration. In the private sector, corrosion affects commercial aircraft, cargo and cruise ships, residential and commercial buildings, and more. Estimates are that direct and indirect costs of corrosion are 6% of the United States Gross Domestic Product. Think about that for a moment… The numbers are so large, they are not measured in millions, or billions… but as a percent of our GDP.

In the public-sector corrosion impacts the military, our transportation, and infrastructure, just to name a few of the biggest categories. For the military, corrosion management – ships, aircraft, infrastructure, etc. – is their single biggest expense. It’s no secret our aging infrastructure needs repair. The National Traffic Safety Board says the most common cause of bridge accidents is rust. This is, with no exaggeration, a life-and-death battle.

But the numbers don’t reflect the real cost of corrosion. A potentially larger cost is down time – the economic loss from taking an asset out of service to paint it. A cruise ship, for example, can lose $1 million a day in revenue for every day it has to sit at dock. At an Oil & Gas facility, taking a “flare stack” out of service for corrosion measurements or maintenance can cost millions of dollars. I mentioned earlier about how these platforms gather a breadth and depth of data never before available, that is how the war against corrosion is won! And data is what is needed, not only to manage or help prevent corrosion, but also to determine the viable life of an asset, estimate preventative maintenance, and more.

Data and digitation is a big current topic in the industrial world with many companies creating “digital twins” (digitized images) for their facilities enabling collection and analysis of massive amounts of data. Software is at the core of all this. Digital twins are created with software. Drones and robots are only able to operate because of software. Data is gathered and analyzed with software. So? What would you say is our most powerful ally in the war against corrosion? Software of course.

We are now in the 4th Industrial Revolution – after 1) powered mechanical production, 2) assembly lines, and 3) electronics and data control – This 4th Industrial Revolution is where Cyber-Physical software extends the reach of human hands, rather than replace them. And to do that requires data. Think of a self-driving car, the data the car needs in order to operate autonomously is staggering. With an aerial robotic system even more so, as you are 1) not on the ground and 2) sometimes making physical contact with something rather than avoiding something. This requires a lot of computing power, and importantly the data to compute. At Apellix we have had to build our own printed circuit boards (PCBs) and circuit cards and create the embedded systems that enable our aerial robotic systems to. As far as we know we are still the only company in the world that has cracked the “hard tech” necessary to allow aircraft to fly up to and contact a structure.

Since aerial robotic systems and drones are in essence “flying computers” they can allow the use of AI. Say for example there is a recent study showing compound x when applied to substrate y and exposed to locations where there is acid rain exacerbate corrosion problems on certain assets such as petroleum storage tanks. The corrosion engineer in the field will most likely not be aware of the new research findings but a system using AI would, allowing the aerial robotic system to specifically look for this corrosion problem.

To show the value of just a portion of the date, here is a direct example. Just one software controlled aerial robotic systems can add enormous economic value. It can cost $.5 to $1.5 m just to scaffold a flare stack at and oil & gas refinery to measure the thickness of the metal. Shutting down the systems for the processes that feed the stack can result in lost revenue of millions of dollars per day. And while painting might be more visually exciting, than measuring the thickness of steel or other substrates, it is the collection of data that really distinguishes what we do, and where our company and the industry are headed. Using an Apellix contact based measurement aerial platform, the owner of – say – a cruise ship, the commander of a Navy battleship, or a state department of transportation might collect 1,000 readings on an expanse of surface where in the past 10 or 20 readings were taken. When the surface is due to be repainted or retested, we have a historical data record and a better corrosion profile.

What is measured is known. And we can make predictions based on these measurements. Plus, we have research data if a failure occurs. We are improving the process and gathering data that didn’t exist before. Adding to the body of knowledge. Coating, cleaning and surface prep can be expensive. Aerial robotic systems can bring massive efficiencies to the job, including a full auditable data record and even information for Digital Implementation Plans.

This is 2020. Why are we putting people at risk of falling or being exposed to toxic chemicals or unsafe environments when we can send an aerial robotic system to do the job instead. The interaction of people and robots is complex, and it’s becoming both more sophisticated and more enabling every day. In our case, the Apellix software driven and controlled platforms are run by operators on the ground. The work above ground is done to greater precision than a human can do, replacing hours of work in dangerous circumstances. But… it doesn’t take human control out of the loop.

What we’ve learned at Apellix from using our aerial robotic platforms is, that it can save lives., it can gather data that is used to create a safer future and it impacts all of us, not just people responsible for storage tanks, ships and bridges. And perhaps most satisfying to us, we’re adding to the body of knowledge, specifically the data on the maintenance of expensive assets. And, we’re helping to save lives.

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