Falls from scaffolds, lifts and ladders are the nation’s leading source of workplace fatalities, about 5,000 annually. Many of them are construction workers; others are window washers that work on skyscrapers. They often hang precariously, from unstable platforms, at altitudes of 300 feet or more. How can these workers be better protected? Equip a drone to carry out their duties for them, according to Andrew Ashur, president and CEO of Lucid Drone Technology.
Ashur says the idea for his drone window washing company came to him one day in Charlotte, NC as he witnessed a cleaning team perform their duties atop a tall building while clutching the railing of a scaffold buffeted by gusts of winds. Even from a distance, the fear and anxiety on the faces of the workers was palpable, he says. “They were white-knucking the whole time,” he told an interviewer. He and his engineers proceeded to design a Hexacopter – a drone powered by 6 rotary blades – equipped with a cleaning fluid hose connected to a pump and a mechanical spray mechanism.
But remarkably Ashur also did something else. To become acquainted first-hand with the risks of high-altitude work, he decided to perform a wide array of jobs himself in the construction and maintenance fields to identify the “pain points” that drones and other robotic vehicles might address. During one of those experiences, a leak from a cleaning fluid hose spilled toxic chemicals along one of his arms, severely burning him. During the weeks it took to recover from his injuries, Ashur became even more passionate about using drones to replace human workers in dangerous high-altitude jobs. “I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone, “ he told an interviewer earlier this year.
Ashur insists that his drones aren’t intended to make current workers redundant. He sees their role as “additive” and “transformational.” When he approaches maintenance companies nationwide, he trains their workforce to integrate the Hexacopter into their current operations – for example, by becoming drone pilots, rather than performing the perilous work themselves. He also suggests expanding drone use to include ongoing monitoring of building conditions with cameras, sensors and thermal imaging technology. A drone, he notes, can perform their services on call, while current maintenance contracts usually stipulate just a yearly or twice-yearly cleaning operation. If something unexpected happens, building residents have no recourse but to wait for the next maintenance call.
Ashur’s expansive vision doesn’t stop there. He also sees autonomous drones and other robotic devices as the future core of “smart” city design technology that can begin to monitor energy use and emissions levels, report emergencies and automatically adjust heat and cooling systems to their optimum levels.
Ashuir admits that his vision is still a long way off. His next step is to explore other labor-saving tasks that his drones might perform in basic building maintenance and construction. Could a drone hammer nails or lay down tiles? Probably not, but less complex tasks like painting walls, clearing debris from clogged gutters or carrying supplies to carpenters and roofers might well be in reach.