hvac-drone-conedisonny ConEdisonNY/YouTube

Expectations High for HVAC Drones (and for Good Reason)

Would you rather climb 100 feet of scaffolding to look in a hole, or send a drone up and inspect the system from your smartphone? The only question now is what to do with all that extra time?

On the factory floor, people may fear that those awful, soulless robots are going to take their jobs assembling and moving and packing products and materials. In the facilities maintenance department, the people who muck through murky tanks and chambers and climb to precarious heights to inspect pipes and ducts are asking, "When can one of these beautiful machines relieve me of this job?"

Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute has developed one way to inspect pipes with a modular snake robot, with a camera at its head, and a cable coming out if its tail for power.  Howie Choset, the CMU professor who has developed the project over the entire decade, used biomimicry of actual sidewinders to help his robots move up poles and around tubes.

 And while snakes would be great to slink through tight pipes, nature has provided a superior mechanism for the HVAC jobs humans dread: flight. If you know anything about the birds and the bees, it's that they can pretty much go anywhere they want.

And because of this, facilities managers are starting to employ drones in their workforce for those hard-to-reach places in their HVAC system, Goodway Technologies reports in a recent "Just Venting" blog.

They write:

"Using a drone to survey a rooftop allows you to fully understand a maintenance or cleaning need before sending a technician up, drastically reducing his time spent in a dangerous situation. Even with scaffolding and safety harnesses, he’s taking on risk. A drone, however, takes virtually no risk. You might lose the drone, but drones are comparatively inexpensive and prices keep dropping."

And this year, the FAA expects commercial drone sales to rise by 416%, indicating that industrial drone use, which accounts for 25% of commercial use, will be expand every day, and the costs will continue to drop.

Con Edison in New York  has already demonstrated how effective drones can be in surveying their 10-story boiler along the East River.

The power plant generates 1.2 million lb of steam an hour and 150 mw of electricity, and inspection can be dangerous and painstaking to reach the points of inspection. Using 2 to 3-lb carbon fiber drones surrounded by a lightweight cage, the engineers can quickly check the system without leaving the ground.

"We're not going to need to enter the space, we don't need the use of scaffolding to look at our critical components," says Seth Flash, a senior engineer and Con Edison. "It will save us time and save us money."

We'll take a closer look at how drones will impact industry and manufacturing in our March cover story, but for now, we'll leave you with Goodway's final poignant thoughts— and good advice—concerning the burgeoning technology:

Drone applications over the next year will make day-to-day maintenance safer, easier and more cost effective. Perhaps most importantly, drones and related technology will make sure maintenance gets done. That’s an overall increase in your company’s efficiency. And that means more money to reinvest. With the cost of drones plummeting, don’t get left behind as this revolutionary new technology reshapes American industry.


Engineers fly a caged drone into its boiler for a quick HVAC inspection.
Screengrab: ConEdisonNY/ YouTube
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