Drones Doing Dirty Work to Keep Humans Safe

by Diana Robinson, FAA UAS Integration Office

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Have you ever watched the television show Dirty Jobs? It takes a behind-the-scenes look at how difficult and strange some occupations can be. Jobs vital for public safety and health can be physically demanding, dirty, and even dangerous. General industry, utility companies, and state and local governments are discovering that drones can do much of this work more safely and efficiently.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was established to ensure safe and healthful working conditions. The agency has been keeping records of on-the-job accidents and fatalities for decades. OSHA is now using drones to inspect facilities following accidents at worksites considered too dangerous for OSHA inspectors to enter. Examples include an oil drilling rig fire, a building collapse, a combustible dust blast, an accident on a television tower, and a chemical plant explosion. Such environments greatly increase accident risk.

Photo of a drone.

Keeping Humans in Their (Safe) Place

An estimated 80- to 90-percent of accidents in the workplace are attributed to human factors. In 2018, there were 4,500 preventable work injury deaths. The number of injuries included workers in construction, agriculture and forestry, utilities, transportation, and government. Accordingly, the goal of human factors is to reduce human error, enhance safety, and increase productivity.

Aviation Human Factors graphic.

Consistent with that aim, drones have practical applications in many situations that might expose a worker to environmental hazards. If a poisonous gas is leaking from an unknown source inside a large factory, a drone could navigate along the pipes to find the problem. Drones recently captured aerial views of a forest fire in the exclusion zone around the shuttered Chernobyl nuclear power plant (site of a 1986 reactor explosion that released massive amounts of radiation into the area). The goal was to get the current fire under control before it reached the site of the reactor. Thermal cameras on the drones helped authorities see hot spots through the smoke, while limiting radiation exposure and other risks to personnel. Drones also have been used to survey areas that have become unsafe for workers following a hurricane or an earthquake.

Inspection is another area where drones shine. Traditional inspection methods for utility pole, roof, and buildings are time-consuming and often require bringing in qualified inspectors. This work can be expensive and risky when it requires carrying heavy equipment while climbing to access certain areas. Roofs can have unusual, complex designs or they may be many stories high. Hazards can vary from heat exposure, insect bites, collapsing roofs, and falls. Using a thermal camera-equipped drone for roof inspections can eliminate many risks and also obviate the need to comply with regulations required for human health and safety.

A visual image and infrared image taken from a drone conducting an inspection.

Conventional procedures for work can become mundane, boring and yes, dull. Boredom increases the potential for complacency — a common contributor to injuries — during cell tower, utility pole, and wind turbine inspections. When workers get extremely comfortable with a procedure, they may unintentionally minimize the amount of risk involved. Because drones don’t get bored, they can enable safer and more efficient performance of this type of work.

The current public health emergency offers yet another example of how drone use keeps humans safe. For example, the Chula Vista Police Department has been able to use a loudspeaker on a drone to effectively and safely communicate information about the public health crisis to homeless encampments while maintaining a safe distance. Drones have also been used to provide prescriptions to a retirement community of more than 135,000 residents, allowing them to shelter in place.

Given all the great ways drones can keep us clean, healthy, and safe, maybe Mike Rowe should consider using one for his next “Dirty Job.”

Diana Robinson is a project specialist in the Programs and Data Management Branch of the UAS Integration Office. She has an MBA and a B.S. in Alternative and Renewable Energy Management.

This article was originally published in the July/August 2020 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine. https://www.faa.gov/news/safety_briefing/

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Voices, stories and news from the Federal Aviation Administration

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