Why you should care
Because RaaS (robots as a service) is the new SaaS.
The work is almost balletic … if you ignore the high-pitched whine of the four plastic rotors. A drone rises from the grass, trailing a tube like a long blue tail. It hovers at about 10 feet above the ground and rotates to point its nozzle at a white cinder-block wall marred with a splotch of black paint that looks like the tag of a bad graffiti artist. Making graceful sweeps back and forth, the drone sprays a fine mist of paint, leaving behind nothing but white. No ladders, no scaffolding, no falls, no sunburn.
Welcome to the potential future of commercial and industrial painting, one where human safety is No. 1 and cutting costs is No. 2. The team at Apellix that engineered the soon-to-be released painting Worker Bee has also come up with a squadron of drones designed to toil semiautonomously on skyscrapers, bridges, tankers and other large-scale industrial jobs while safely tethered with a cable. CEO Bob Dahlstrom’s inspiration came from struggling to paint his Florida house, wondering why, with all of today’s available tech, the task was so difficult. His solution was drones, coded and built to handle paint jobs and follow-up inspections that are hard or dangerous for humans to do.
Robots as a service is already happening. You have robots as a service for delivery and [potentially] robots as service for painting.
Paul Kry, associate professor, McGill University
Currently, drones are hyped for delivery, entertainment and racing, but putting them to hard work? Well, that’s an emerging field that’s gaining traction. In addition to other benefits, drones show potential for reducing deaths in all manner of dangerous occupations; between 2003 and 2017, for example, 114 people died while working on cell towers.
The best-known painting drone is the Icarus One, sold by street artist Katsu to let taggers get their aerial kicks on. But that’s just the cool consumer side of the spectrum. The real innovation is bigger and less sexy, but with distinctly more reach. In Singapore, roboticists at Nanyang Technological University created the PictoBot, which uses a robotic arm to paint building interiors 25 percent faster than humans can. At McGill University’s School of Computer Science in Montreal, associate professor Paul Kry and his team program drone swarms to reach a similar objective. “Flying robots present interesting new possibilities for painting because they can easily get to hard-to-reach places,” Kry wrote in a 2016 paper.
That’s exactly what inspired Apellix CEO Dahlstrom to create his company swarm, which includes drones designed to paint, clean, coat and test. But he’s keeping his cards close to his vest. “Apellix is bullish on the potential of drones for industrial-use cases,” he says. “We’re receiving daily inquiries from global companies, and we’re still only in the minimum viable product testing and rollout phase.”
Dahlstrom is being modest — his drone bees are a hot property. In April, Apellix’s Smart Bee won first place at the Automate Launch Pad Startup competition in Chicago; in May, it landed the Innovation of the Year Award in Houston from NACE, the National Association of Corrosion Engineers. The Smart Bee measures dry film thickness, which is the industry standard for evaluating quality and cost. The Worker Bee will slap 5,000 to 12,000 square feet of paint per hour on structures up to 100 feet high. “[We] have evolved from a small spray-painting drone proof of concept to large software-controlled aerial industrial robots for painting, cleaning and testing,” Dahlstrom says.
These advances could seriously shake up the industry. In 2015, industrial painting and coating represented a $7.8 billion business, according to the American Coatings Association, with a U.S. workforce of about 217,000 people. The 2016 median salary was $35,570. Cost-cutting via drones could render many of those jobs obsolete.
Commercial painters don’t have to start looking for other work just yet, says McGill’s Kry. “A lot of people are working on the computational problems for getting robots to use brushes and pens,” he says, “but there are [different] challenges with a flying robot.” For one, wind can disturb the flight path, and the heavier the paint load, the shorter the battery life. Kry’s lab has been testing a method for aerial painting. Working with teams of students, he’s programmed ultralight drone swarms to carry paint-dipped sponges. The drones press the sponges against a surface to create a stippling effect and cumulatively cover large areas. Kry was inspired by his building’s “boring” white interior walls, which he decided could use a refresh.
Kry says a next step is scaling up, using bigger, more robust drones. So far, his drone paintings include stippled pictures of Grace Kelly and Che Guevara; he thinks a giant Alan Turing might be next. “Robots as a service is already happening,” he says. “You have robots as a service for delivery and [potentially] robots as service for painting. For a company that can host a fleet of robots, why not?”
The American Coatings Association says it represents manufacturers and therefore doesn’t have “expertise in [this] technology”; the Canadian Paint and Coatings Association says it focuses on government relations and regulations. But drones are not as foreign to the industry as those responses might suggest. AkzoNobel, a global paint and coatings company headquartered in the Netherlands, has partnered with U.K.-based DroneOps and the Barrier Group, an American oil-and-tank operator, to test and develop drones to remotely inspect enclosed spaces like water tanks; they plan to launch the project in October 2017.
Arthur Holland Michel, from the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, cautions that a number of technical hurdles need to be cleared before this trend goes mainstream. “At the moment, it’s experimental,” Michel says. “There’s certainly been some improvement, but [drones] are not going to paint the Sistine Chapel yet.”