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Time To Rebrand Drones: Tools Not Toys

The potential for drone technology to automate the world’s most dangerous jobs is underrepresented in a space dominated by controversy and misuse.

Drones are never too far from controversy. Last December, some twerp fooling around with a pre-Christmas present led to the 48-hour closure of London Gatwick airport and the travel disruption of more than 120,000 people.

Then, when drones are ‘spun’ in a positive light, we are told about the “amazing” delivery opportunities for our Amazon packages: a completely uninspiring, and equally problematic, use of vanguard technology.

So let’s look at drone technology’s massive potential for humanity, specifically in the automation of the world’s most dangerous jobs.

Silicon Roundabout caught up with Dr. Pippa Malmgren, Co-Founder and CEO of H Robotics, on how their new tech is helping alleviate people from the most brutal occupations.

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In January this year, the breaking of the Feijao dam in Brazil killed at least 166 people, with many more still missing. The tragedy has left the operating company, Vale — once the pride of the country — now in a precarious situation.

Any mine in the world, whether it be platinum, gold, emerald or iron ore, uses highly toxic fluid to blast through the rock, so a tailings dam is built to catch the harmful runoff. These dams are under tremendous pressure and need regular inspection.

“The runoff is so toxic that the rubber on the shoes of the men, who do the thankless task of assessing the dams, often starts to melt as they approach,” says Dr Malmgren.
“And if that’s not bad enough, the hull of the boat melts and, in Africa, crocs leap onto the boat!”

She has developed a means for aerial robotic tools, drones, to do the inspections. Helping to stop ecological meltdown, to prevent men from having to risk their life doing a terrifying job, and preventing big businesses from going into liquidation is quite the tryptic of triumph.

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Emergency Services

In the worst of emergencies, drones could have a vital role to play.

“For example,’’ says Dr Malmgren, “when there’s no way of knowing of what’s happening on the upper floors of a burning building, a drone can help. When the structure is too unstable to send fire dogs in — let alone humans — drones should become the go-to for interior inspection. ”

When fitted with 3D mapping technology drones can map complex structures and thermal imaging can let them identify victims quickly.

Furthermore, as the Dubai-based company, Ehang, are already developing air taxis to transport people, conceivably, soon, drones will be able to remove people from burning buildings.

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Power Industry

Be it traditional fossil fuels or contemporary bio-fuel, the power industry that we depend on is reliant on ordinary people risking their lives.

The worst, says Malmgren, is the inspectors of decommissioned, offshore oil and gas platforms at sea.

“The platforms are in such poor condition and could collapse at any point that they cannot be landed upon. Even fully operational platforms have dangerous tasks that sometimes require the inspectors to hang from great heights, via “groin ropes” in the most treacherous of conditions. The task is to see how deep the corrosion of the structure is, but the pressure around the groin is so great, that they cannot last more than 10 minutes before they lose all of the blood in their legs!”

Similar dangers apply at wind farms where people inspect 400 ft towers on ladders, in, really windy conditions. Likewise, in the gas industry, surveyors have to operate inside highly flammable gas tanks where the smallest friction can cause mass devastation.

Why use human eyes, asks Dr Malmgren, when you can use aerial, remote, robotic eyes?

Tools Not Toys

A problem with drones is that they have become known as toys for Instagrammers obsessed with their “experience”. #Dronefortheday, for instance, has over 250k followers!

A simple distinction needs to be made between drones as toys and drones as tools.

Toys cannot provide data management or analysis, nor can they usually handle adverse weather. Whilst aerial tools are designed with data in mind and are stable even in driving rain and high winds.

H Robotics has been relentlessly building and testing their tech for over five years now. They compare their philosophy to “something like lego”, allowing for any number of affixtures, meaning their tech can have endless use-value. The can deploy virtually any camera, sensor or device the market comes up with. So far, they have built waterproof drones that can land on the surface of the ocean, added spark-proof propellers so they can investigate highly flammable zones, and built heavy-lift arms for search and rescue missions.

The toy market is dominated by Chinese company DJI, but no one “owns” the industrial space, yet.

H Robotics modular design is flying the flag.