Discussions continue to take place regarding workforce development and technological challenges for the protective coatings industry. Could part of the solution come from drones?
Bob Dahlstrom, founder and CEO of aerial robotics company Apellix, believes companies similar to his may have solutions. To celebrate 2022 National Robotics Week, Dahlstrom joined our CoatingsPro Interview Series to explore some of the latest trends within the robotics field. Topics include industry and company developments, feedback from users in the field, workforce and safety implications, and what the future looks like for using robotics across various phases of corrosion control and protective coatings projects.
Read on for a Q&A transcript of part two of that conversation (part one, which focused on workforce development issues and safety, is available here), and listen to the full episode below.
Q: What type of feedback are you getting from users in the field? What are you hoping to learn about your drones?
Dahlstrom: We’re hosting about 20 people from the industry through our partnership with AkzoNobel. They’re bringing in 20 of their customers to take a look at the spray painting drone to give us their feedback.
The whole purpose of this exercise is for their feedback, and to learn we need to do to make it available to go to field trials. The feedback may be, “Okay, on the user interface, we want a dropdown menu, and you select which coating you’re using.”
Then, from that, the drone the user interface will tell you, “Okay, use, you’re using this coating, so you need to use a 517 tip, and you need to set your compressor to 2,800 psi [19.3 MPa].” Internally, the drone would say, “Okay, I need to be 14 inches [35.6 cm] from the wall moving at 0.6 meters per second.” It can calculate what it needs to do to dial in the right parameters, and to do the proper coating job and apply at the proper mil thickness. So, input from the industry will be crucial in not only user validation but also in learning what we need to do to get this into field trials.
There’s still a ton of work to be done on the spray painting drone. Once it has completed field trials, we then have to come back, and all the lessons learned have to be incorporated, built, added, and modified. Then, at that point in time, we hope to have a viable product that we can get out into the market, and people can start using it.
We’ve found that methodology to work well. That’s what we did with our nondestructive testing [drone] and with our power-washing system. Getting industry feedback early, and getting it into field trials, is important. Because these things operate perfectly at our warehouse, where we’ve got a facsimile of an aboveground storage tank and a really high wall. But when you get out into the real world, they don’t always operate the same, and you run into challenges that you never foresee.
So it’s about getting it out into the real world, getting that feedback, and modifying the system and making it better to overcome those limitations. Or it’s making modifications to make it easier to use. All are critical and important.
One of the things we say is that, you know, we’re roboticists and software engineers. We’re not coatings experts. That’s the great value we’ve had in our relationship with AkzoNobel. They are. They’ve been able to help us understand. Over the years, we’ve been able to learn what it means to put down the right layer of film with adhesion, and what it takes to do the perfect paint job. That’s what we aspire to do.
A lot of it just comes down to math. Think about the transfer efficiency ratio. If you’re too close with your spray tip, the atomized paint bounces off the surface. If you’re too far, it blows away in the wind. So getting the right distance from the wall is something people do all the time, and fantastically well, because they’re intuitive. They say, “Oh, okay, I’m too far or too close,” and they just move their hand.
But, it’s also math. If you know the tip you’re using, the component you’re using, and the paint compounds… or if you know the weather conditions, because these are flying computers. They know the ambient temperature, the barometric pressure, the relative humidity, and the temperature of the surface being coated. That all can go into a lookup table in the software that says, “Okay, given all these parameters, I need to be this distance from the wall, and moving at this speed, to get this mil thickness on the coating.”
Q: What’s new in terms of company developments and business initiatives that Apellix has in the pipeline in 2022?
With the nondestructive testing system, we’re up to six patents on all the drones. That includes spray painting, cleaning, and nondestructive testing. But the nondestructive testing system is now international. We’ve shipped one overseas. So we have a number of people interested in that.
We also launched our field services and labs group, Apellix NDE. That’s where we go out and do jobs with companies, as a learning exercise. For example, we used to take one reading at a time, autonomously. The drone pilot would fly it up to an aboveground storage tank, for example, and engage the software. The drone would go into the corrosion monitoring location, take a measurement, backup, hover, and then wait. Then, the pilot would manually fly it to the other side of the tank — or wherever — re-engage the software, and take the second reading.
For one of our customers that we work with, their corrosion monitoring locations are basically a straight line up the side of an aboveground storage tank. So, the pilot now goes to the very bottom of the tank, and they engage the software. The drone goes in, takes the reading, comes back, goes up, and starts taking a series of readings, automatically, every 12 inches [30.5 cm]. It goes until the pilot either says to resample a location or stops and moves it to the next location. So, as we continue to automate this, we have additional functionality for this product for nondestructive testing. We have a huge demand for that. We’re also scaling up, as a company, to meet the demand. We have a new COO [chief operating officer] coming on, and we’re hiring additional team members to get this developed and out in the world.
We have two products launched now, in nondestructive testing and the washing drone. Over time, we will be integrating more and more surface prep capabilities into that system. And then we have the spray painting drone coming out, probably in 2023.
What we’re trying to accomplish here is a cradle-to-grave corrosion management system. The idea is that when something’s new, we’re able to paint it. Then, over time, we can clean it, and we can test the thickness of the coating, or the steel or metal, and maintain that asset.
When it needs cleaning, clean it. When it needs surface prep, do the surface prep and recoat. We’re getting there. We have two of the three components in place, and we’re racing forward with the third while we continue iterating, developing, and adding more functionality to the other two.