Here’s a job any worker would be happy to pass off to drones: Imagine crawling down a ladder into the vast darkness of a 20-story-high storage tank filled with toxic chemical fumes to spend hours searching for corrosion.
From an article in Bloomberg.
More than a thousand U.S. laborers have been killed working in confined spaces like that in the past decade. One of them was 43-year-old Clinton Miller, an AkzoNobel NV employee who passed out after entering a tank to retrieve a piece of trash at a North Carolina chemical plant last year. Oxygen levels were found to be just 11% inside the structure, according to a federal incident report.
Enter the ever-more capable drone. Companies including Dow Inc., AT&T Inc., BASF SE and Royal Dutch Shell Plc have begun assembling fleets of the flying automatons to take over their most dangerous jobs. Ascending several hundred feet in the air to inspect tanks and towers, squeezing through claustrophobic tunnels to replace a faulty part, or peering into the maw of a flame-belching smokestack—all are jobs that robots are being designed to do, companies say.
“We look at these tasks and say, ‘Is there a better way that we can do this without exposing the worker to risk?’ ” said Chris Witte, manager of chemical giant BASF’s Freeport, Texas, site. “The answer is yes. We can send a drone in.” Drones now fly every day at the Freeport plant, keeping workers off scaffolding and out of tanks.
For all the talk of automation and robotics replacing human labor, the new uses of drones show how technology can cut costs for companies while dramatically reducing risk, and even saving lives. They also show why businesses are pressing hard in Washington for the ability to use drones in more situations.
Inspections of gas flares at Shell’s refineries used to take days, said Randy Burow, Shell’s health and safety manager. To get workers close enough to the flame-spewing stacks to check the pilot light, the system had to be taken offline, then workers were hoisted in a basket several hundred feet high to the top of the stack. Now drones can complete the inspection of still-burning flares in a few hours without a worker ever leaving the ground.
In 2017, 166 U.S. workers died in confined spaces. But that number pales when compared with the 887 killed by falls, the second-biggest cause of workplace deaths after car accidents, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
AT&T has invested in a large fleet of drones to help inspect its 65,000 cell towers in the U.S., which can rise as high as 1,000 feet. Working on them is especially perilous: Tower climbers fall to their death at nearly 10 times the rate of construction workers.
The telecom giant has used drones to eliminate 5,000 tower climbs in the past 18 months, said Art Pregler, the director of AT&T’s drone program.
With high-powered cameras attached, increasingly agile drones operated by an earthbound human can soar to the top of a tower in minutes, float among the steel frames and zoom in for close-up inspections. Drones send images so detailed that workers on the ground can count the threads on a bolt, said Pat Dempsey, who oversees telecommunications maintenance at power utility PSEG Inc. “The fact you don’t have to make a person climb that tower, from a safety standpoint, it’s a game changer.”
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