Anyone who’s seen the devastating footage from post-earthquake Nepal knows drones have already altered the way films and videos are shot. But the technology may soon transform a much less glamorous industry: safety.
About 250 companies have received Federal Aviation Administration permission to use drones commercially. Dow Chemical, insurance giants State Farm and AIG, and Total Safety, a global safety company, are among the few who cited safety as a major reason behind their drone plans.
Mark A. Benvenuto, chairman of the University of Detroit Mercy’s Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, said the culture of safety among chemical manufacturers is pretty intense.
“They don’t want to ever have to pay a guy workman’s comp who fell off a ladder or slipped and fell. … It’s not just a money thing,” Benvenuto said. “For gosh sakes, you want your employees to be happy, not broken.”
So taking a person out of the equation or moving him further away from a smokestack for a hot chemical process — say, a sulfur burn when making sulfuric acid — makes sense, he said.
In its FAA exemption request, Dow Chemical lists Baton Rouge as the address of its chief pilot. The company declined interview requests on its use of drones, also known as unmanned aerial or aircraft systems.
However, Dow issued a statement saying the devices’ ability to capture high-resolution images will eliminate the need for workers to inspect elevated structures.
“This will improve the safety and efficiency of inspections and plant operations,” spokeswoman Rachelle Schikorra said.
Benvenuto said he didn’t know how much a chemical manufacturer saves by using a drone equipped with a thermal sensor instead of a worker.
But flying a drone around a smokestack 20 times to check for a hot spot that may indicate a failing panel is probably a lot cheaper and safer, he said.
Total Safety also will use the drones to inspect flare stacks, the disposal systems where gas from manufacturing or production processes is burned. Total’s Lafayette office will oversee the drone flare inspection program.
The flares can be several hundred feet tall. Discharge temperatures can be more than 2,000 degrees. Inspecting the flares usually requires shutting down a process for hours or days.
But the drones will allow Total to inspect the flares while they are operating. In addition to checking for mechanical issues, the drones’ sensors can check emissions and make sure the flares are working properly.
State Farm plans to use the drones to inspect roofs and assess damage from hurricanes, among other things, according to its filing with the FAA. Doing so will sharply reduce the risk that claims inspectors will injure themselves inspecting damaged structures.
The state’s largest insurer is developing a drone pilot training program near its corporate headquarters in Illinois. In addition to being licensed, pilots must have a minimum of 200 flights and 25 hours of total time as an unmanned aerial system rotorcraft pilot. The company asked for exemptions for a quadcopter and an airplane with a 108-inch wingspan.
State Farm spokesman Roszell Gadson said it’s too early to say how long it will take to put its pilots through the required training. But the pilots will be employed by State Farm, and they won’t be claims adjusters.
Meanwhile, the number of companies requesting commercial drone exemptions is rapidly growing. More than 1,200 requests have been filed so far, 200 in the past two weeks, according to the FAA.
In each of the commercial exemptions it has granted, the FAA has required some sort of pilot’s license to operate the drones. There is some question whether there are enough licensed pilots to fly all those drones.
That won’t be a problem for Dow, which already employs a team of 11 licensed pilots and five technicians, according to its FAA filing. Those pilots will undergo the same sort of drone training as State Farm’s.
But most companies aren’t like Dow.
The FAA is helping ease the pressure.
The agency originally required drone operators to hold a private pilot license but has dropped that prerequisite.
A UAS pilot can have a sport pilot or recreational pilot license, both of which are less expensive and less time-consuming to obtain, FAA spokesman Les Dorr said.
Melissa Rudinger, vice president of governmental affairs for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, doesn’t expect any drone pilot shortage to last long.
The FAA’s proposed commercial drone regulations don’t require drone operators to be licensed pilots, just pass a written exam. The final regulations are expected in 2017.
In the meantime, Rudinger expects an entire new industry will emerge to support the drone licensing requirements.
“I would expect universities and flight schools, and everyone from a mom-and-pop school up to an Embry-Riddle (Aeronautical University) will have drone programs or drone-pilot programs,” Rudinger said.
Many academic institutions already offer some sort of drone-training program, including the University of Louisiana at Monroe.